Property and human rights
Arguably, more goodwill reigns among men and women than it does during the other 11 months of the year. Of all times in the year to be good, this is one.
I’ve been a bad boy this year – from time to time I’ve flung dirt at retailers for being incompetent and not delivering an experience people want. You can’t blame me. After all, if you take a step back and look at things objectively as a consumer you have to admit that many retailers are just plain awful. Sorry, but it’s true.
Occasionally this year I’ve been extra bad and flung a bit of dirt at the property industry too. Overall, the industry is great for Australia, but it still – like all of us – needs an honest mirror held up to it.
Yet things are changing for the better, both from the retailer and the property standpoint.
Globalisation, though not without its shortcomings and detested by some, is, on balance, a net plus for the Australian retail market, Australian property, and Australian consumer.
In this season of goodwill though, it is worthwhile reflecting on where globalisation isn’t getting the job done.
Take the Middle East for example. Colliers International, in its wide ranging 2014 ‘Global Retail Highlights’ report, surveys retail development activity around the world.
The report includes a section on the Middle East, commenting that development is robust around the region but that “Dubai remains the principal entrance point to the region for new brands”.
There, two iconic projects – Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates – are being expanded, the better to house more of the international fashion and food names that flock to Dubai to share in the Emirate’s economic miracle.
And let’s not forget plans announced in July to build the modestly named Mall of the World, with 800,000sqm of retail gross leasable area that would make it the world’s largest shopping centre.
We can only hope though, as we enter this season of goodwill, that the construction site of Mall of the World will not be the same living hell for cheap foreign workers for which some of Dubai’s other malls, office buildings, and hotels became notorious.
Human Rights Watch and the US Department of State have long monitored the pattern of people trafficking and forced labour of migrant workers in the UAE. They, and another NGO, Emirates Centre for Human Rights, have been particularly critical of the country’s ‘Kafala’ sponsorship system and the associated practices of debt bondage and passport confiscation.
In essence, UAE employment agencies trick migrant workers into paying exorbitant recruitment fees in exchange for the promise of high wages.
The worker arrives to find out that the high wages are in fact a pittance – about US$250 a month if he is lucky. So he can’t pay back what he owes to the employer for bringing him there.
Thereby virtually enslaved, the foreigner, if he is a construction worker, proceeds to work 12 hour days, six days a week in scorching heat, before being bussed for the night to a miserable workers’ camp on the outskirts of town where he crashes on his foam rubber mattress in a room shared with goodness knows how many of his fellows. Sometimes he isn’t paid at all, sometimes only after a period of months.
If you are one of these poor unfortunates, don’t think about flying the coop – your employer has got your passport.
According to Mastercard’s ‘2014 Global Destination Cities Index’, Dubai is the world’s fifth most visited city by international visitors, trailing only London, Bangkok, Paris, and Singapore.
Almost 12 million people will have come and stayed at least one night by the end of 2014, and left behind US$10.9 billion. They will sleep in the city’s five star hotels, gawk at its skyscrapers, and shop in its mega malls.
It isn’t clear how many of the visitors know or care that forced labour played an irreplaceable role in getting those buildings up there.
I say an ‘irreplaceable’ role because precious little of the Gulf’s home grown citizenry care much to get their hands dirty with manual labour. Paying migrant workers a fair wage would drive construction costs too high, rendering the Gulf’s glass and aluminium ‘miracle’ unattainable.
So in this season of goodwill, I urge my colleagues in the property industry to make a little of their own noise against these kinds of practices.
Thankfully, this is not a problem that the Australian retail and property industries harbour, but we can still stand up for what’s right in other parts of the world, rather than turn a blind eye and pretend that it’s none of our business.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, catch ya in 2015!