About Money. About Getting Paid. About Expectations.

For today’s Money Monday post, I would like to share about some of the financial things that I deal with working for ADEC. I consider myself to be a fair-minded individual, and that’s the perspective I intend to write this from. Too often I see folks complaining about the way things are here, and I soon start to call their judgment about those things into question, because I usually find those people are the ones who have made no allowances for living and working in a foreign land.

When I was researching job prospects in the UAE, I spent time on websites like Dave’s ESL Cafe and many others, and that was a good way to determine what schools an organizations played fair with their employees. Of course, I tempered my reading with knowledge that people who get themselves in trouble out of their own idiocy are often to be the loudest Internet complainers.  So I’d like to address the issue of pay (not the rate as much as other aspects) in a level-headed fashion, because it’s the kind of thing I’d have liked for someone to elaborate upon when I was job-hunting and when I was trying to figure out what to expect.

So I’m going to talk about what it’s like to be receiving pay from an Emirati organization. First, let me address expectations: I was told that ADEC gives annual raises, and having that expectation in mind, I was disappointed to see that it’s not in my contract. My grade level coordinator has an older contract from a year before I came, and the wording of his contract is different–he is promised the raise. But he hasn’t ever gotten it, since one of the Sheikhs issued a decree last year freezing all pay. So that expectation was quashed. Another expectation has to do with timely pay for the first major payment into our bank accounts–our housing allowance, with which we purchase necessities like furniture for the empty apartments we’re provided.  This allowance didn’t arrive until the end of August, meaning that I spent nearly a month in Abu Dhabi without the means to purchase any of the things I would be needing very soon.  When the money arrived, I scrambled to get all the stuff I needed.  But then, before I’d managed to get any bedroom furniture, ADEC moved me from the Intercontinental to the crappy Hilton in Al Ain, where I had one day off before being shuttled to various orientations.  At the Hilton, we were told upon arrival that we’d be given up to two weeks to get our housing all squared away, and then that was suddenly changed after four days, when it was unceremoniously announced, via a slip of paper under the door, that all ADEC teachers were expected to check out the next morning.  The wife and I spent the next night at a friend’s apartment, and then slept on our own couches, before a friend lent us mattresses to throw on the floor until we got our bedroom furniture from Ikea.  So the expectation to receive the initial housing allowance in a timely manner was quashed.  I’m not sharing these experiences because I’m bitter, but because it’s the way things happened.

ADEC pays teachers on the 25th of each month.  After the initial month’s pay didn’t arrive, I had to wait until September to finally be paid.  At the end of September, I’d been without a paycheck for quite some time.  ADEC did pay me, on September 25, a prorated salary for August, and they paid me my regular amount for September, so that paycheck (or direct deposit, actually) was pretty large.

ADEC provides tickets to get teachers from their country of origin to the UAE.  Until today, the only complications in this area were due to different expectations–we were told that I would be issued a ticket and that the wife would have to follow me at a later date, and that we should plan accordingly.  If you’ve read our old posts, you know this isn’t what happened at all.  At the end of July, ADEC’s travel agency sent an e-mail verifying our travel information, and then they sent an itinerary for both of us to fly at the same time.  Plans were already made, and unable to alter them, we contacted the travel agency and had them issue only one ticket.  After waiting a month to get my passport with work visa back, we gave up waiting and bought our own ticket for her to come join me.  That resulted in a few complications, but nothing difficult to deal with.  ADEC reimbursed us fully for her airfare.  Today there is a new complication, however.  Rather than buying tickets for all teachers to go home during the summer months, ADEC provides funds for you to purchase your own tickets.  This amount is supposed to vary based upon your location, of course, but they have always been generous and provided plenty of money for folks to buy tickets on nice airlines like Emirates or Etihad.  This year there seems to have been some kind of goof–some of us, including yours truly, aren’t receiving anywhere near enough money to cover our flights.  I say it’s a goof because word is that ADEC honestly messed up–“a clerical error,” some say, resulting in wild variances and discrepancies.  At any rate, the allowance to go home generally seems to be substantially less than it has been.  As I write, I still have hope that this will be corrected, because I’m scheduled to receive, for my family, a mere 9450 AED, or about $2,600, and at the moment the cheapest flights (not even ones via Emirates or Etihad) to Atlanta are showing up at $1,800 a piece via SkyScanner.  This is disconcerting for obvious reasons.  We’ll see if ADEC fixes this.  If not, there will be much justifiable anger.

And what about sick days?  Are we paid for them?  Yes, as long as we go to a doctor and get a certain form rubber stamped and then submit that to our school’s secretary and to ADEC itself, via their clumsy and unintuitive webpage (hey, that’s true, not bitter or angry).  I had an issue pop up when they tried to deny me pay for one of my three sick days I took over the course of the year.  It turned out I needed to go get a stamp that was missing applied to my doctor’s note.  That was a bit of a pain in the neck, but after re-uploading my form with the required stamp, I was all set.

Another thing that impacts some people’s wallets comes in the form of what people are told when they interview for the job.  Besides not receiving the annual raise, teachers who come in the summer having just completed their degrees (I’m speaking of Master’s or higher), will end up only receiving the pay for the degree they had before.  My friend and coworker, who shall remain here unnamed, finished up with his Master’s degree in Education after he interviewed for his position in the spring.  “Don’t worry,” they said, “You’ll get paid on the Master’s pay scale.  All you will have to do is turn in the authenticated copy of your degree and we will make sure you’re paid accordingly, since you’ll have had the degree prior to actually working for us.”  That hasn’t happened.  In fact, after much hassling to make sure he had everything done right, and after being congratulated for an upcoming pay raise by a woman in the Al Ain ADEC office, he received an e-mail from the lady in charge of OK’ing stuff.  What did it say?  All pay raises were frozen as a result of the decree I mentioned earlier.  This defies logic, you say!  Yes, I agree.  You’re getting the idea of what it’s like to live and work in the UAE.

So that more or less sums up my experience with the topic of being paid.  Although I was late being paid my housing allowance, I’ve been paid on time ever since.  If ADEC fixes my family’s flight allowance for this summer, I can’t complain.

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Wage Slavery

I’ve just finished reading Upton Sinclair’s turn-of-the-20th-Century book “The Jungle.”  It’s about the disgusting Chicago meatpacking industry and the poor souls in its employ.  The narrative follows a fictional family who immigrates to the US from Lithuania and the numerous trials they endure on their way to becoming cogs in the industrial machine.  Like all overused machinery, the family suffers greatly and are all driven to overwork before that finally takes its toll and things fall apart for them.  Sinclair’s book ends in an unfortunate way, for it becomes mere Socialist propaganda.  But up until about 3/4 or even 7/8 of the way through, it’s quite a good read.  Now, although I ignore the propaganda, I find one turn of phrase I stumbled across during the latter part of the book interesting and even poignant.  Sinclair calls those in the employ of the meatpacking trust “wage slaves.”  For, you see, the employees are technically free, but they’re too poor to live a life of any quality and they have no other viable options but to return to the torturous jobs they have and maintain them as long as they can.  In Sinclair’s book, this usually means until someone is injured on the job, whereupon they’re laid off and cast out.

sinclair's jungleMaybe we can make the argument, like Sinclair might if he were still kicking, that this kind of thing is alive and well in America.  But I’m not sure.  Since “The Jungle” was published, the meat industry was forced to clean up and working conditions have undoubtedly improved by leaps and bounds.  In fact, the Food and Drug Administration was formed partly as a result of the novel’s publication.  On the FDA’s website, Sinclair is credited thus: “the nauseating condition of the meat-packing industry that Upton Sinclair captured in The Jungle was the final precipitating force behind both a meat inspection law and a comprehensive food and drug law” known originally as the Wiley Act, which became law in 1906.  Ah, the power of the pen.  Although the Wiley Act and the FDA is a big deal, Sinclair was really more interested in the plight of the poor working man than food safety, as his Socialist ending makes abundantly clear.  It would take nearly four decades for a national minimum wage to be introduced in 1938, and at 25 cents it was equivalent to $4.13 hourly in 2013. It’s hard enough to live on minimum wage in the USA now, and it’s $7.25 in most states–imagine surviving on way less than 5 bucks an hour, especially when you’ve got to pay rent, buy groceries, fill up your gasoline tank, and spend money on all the necessities of life.  It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?  So does “wage slavery” still exist in the States?  I don’t know.  I’m open to comments on it.  I’ve worked for minimum wage and below, but I climbed upward since, and I couldn’t go back.

As I ponder the notion of folks who have no option but to work for whatever diddly amount they’re offered, it occurs to me that I see a certain amount of this every day here in the UAE.  It’s common to have house help here.  Most apartments or villas of any size have a miniscule maid’s quarters.  If you take a stroll through the mall, you’ll inevitably notice Emirati women shopping in Carrefour being followed around by Filipino ladies who are trying to keep the kids in line, pushing the shopping cart, and frequently being told what to take off the shelves and put in the cart.  I hate doing dishes, and I don’t really like giving up my weekend time to clean the house, so I thought, “Gee, we might be able to afford a maid.”  But Jenia is totally opposed to the idea.  “Those people are practically slaves,” she says.  Sometimes she goes even further and calls them slaves outright.  “Well,” I say, “They’re making more than they would at home.”  That doesn’t get my case any farther along, I’m afraid.  Just how much do these people make?  The pay range for maids/nannies tends to run about 1,000-2,000 AED monthly.  Divide that by 3.67 to find what they’re making in dollars.  These employees are usually expected to work 6 days a week, basically all day.  Lest you think I’m picking on Emiratis when I illustrate a point like I did above, I should say that there are quite a number of Westerners who hire help.  Also, mind you, I’m not criticizing those who take maids and the like into their employ–I’m pointing out that it’s a job with a surprisingly low wage.

The Burj Khalifa is one of Arabtec's projects (completed along with Korean company Samsung and Belgium based Besix).

The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa is one of Arabtec’s projects (completed in conjunction with Korean company Samsung and Belgium based Besix).

Besides house help, most other blue collar laborers are imported from eastern Asia.  The administration’s menial workers, the janitors and the like at my school, for example, are all from elsewhere.  Most of them are Bangladeshi, and they’re serving a 1-year contract.  I gave one of the guys a ride home one day, and he inquired as to what I make per month.  I didn’t tell him, but he told me what he made: 1,400 AED.  He told me that from that, he spends 500 a month on rent, 300 on food, and some on transportation.  The rest he sends home to his wife and baby.

A group of Pakistani men hang about hoping for work as movers.

A group of Pakistani men hang about in the Sanaiya area in Al Ain hoping for work as movers.

The ratio of Pakistanis and Indians living here is very high.  While they are certainly not all unskilled, there are many Pakistani men who come as unskilled laborers.  At night they fill up the parks in downtown Al Ain enjoying the relative coolness of the evening.  I’d venture to guess that most of the construction workers I’ve seen are Pakistani, but that is only a guess, and likely not representative of much.  Last month there was a big strike in Dubai as laborers refused to come to work for Arabtec, the largest construction company around.  I watched the newspaper coverage of that with great interest.  I was interested because I’ve seen workers being transported from construction sites when they take their midday break in the summer months.  It will be far above 100F and these glistening, sweaty men load up into big buses, windows wide open since there is no air conditioning in the buses.  Usually these workers live on the construction site or nearby it, in housing provided by their employers.  If you think that this means nice housing, you should probably join me in doing some research.  Is it squalor of the type these people might have to deal with in their home countries?  I don’t know.  I haven’t been to Pakistan or where have you, and I haven’t set foot in any of the housing provided by Arabtec or any other big company.  At any rate, these laborers typically work 6 days a week, and put in long hours.  The strike was news because striking is patently illegal here. In a country with no minimum wage, I was also curious to find out what these workers made.  Well, if you clicked on the link in my text, you’ve already found out: they make about $160 a month, depending.  If you’re still curious, here’s another link providing a lot of detail, including much more about working conditions, housing, wages, and the like.  Now, a month after these people boldly defied the authorities in order to try to get better treatment, they’re being dealt with. According to a 7 Days Dubai article, many of those who didn’t go to work are being deported.  7 Days is something close to a tabloid–they’re quick to report, but usually short on details and depth–but they do offer a look at what is happening in the area.

Seen here from atop the Burj Khalifa, the Address is another of Arabtec's completed projects.

Seen here from atop the Burj Khalifa, the Address is another of Arabtec’s completed projects.

I am not an investigative journalist, so I’m not knocking on doors and visiting all sorts of people all the time, but I do have eyes, and I do go to various areas in town, and I do interact with people.  And clearly I read, too.  So I end up wondering, in old Socialist style phrasing, what the plight of the worker is nowadays.  Do we continue to exploit and even victimize unskilled laborers?  Do we do it in the USA?  Does the UAE do it, right here around me, where I’m living?  I’m among the masses of foreigners who work in the UAE because I get more pay than I get at home.  In my case, the pay isn’t stunningly high, but I have lots of perks thrown in that end up being equivalent to a notably larger payday than I’d have in the States.  Many times I’ve debated with myself whether it’s worth being here or not, considering the difficulties at work.  But I’ve learned to cope with the challenges and I’ve adapted, more or less, to the culture here and figured out (to some extent) how to work within the environment I’ve chosen to move to.  I can’t complain about my situation, since I chose it, and since it’s always possible for me to bail out and leave if things get unbearable for some reason.  Do these unskilled laborers have the same options as I do? They certainly work much harder physically than I do.  Can they leave if they choose?  What kind of toll does this work environment take on them?  Do the pros of the jobs here outweigh the cons?

I’m not answering these questions today.  I’m just posing them because I think they’re worth exploring and seeking answers to.  If you feel you can contribute to the topic, you’re free to comment.  In keeping with the spirit of our blog, I’d ask that you keep your comments civil and respectful to all.

In parting, I’d like to leave you with the link to a post on the blog Sweden and the Middle East.  It’s worth a read as it’s thought-provoking and just might provide some insight into what life can be like for a domestic worker.  Have a gander at it.  Let the author (and me, if you get around to it) know what you think.

Date Palms

Since moving to the UAE, I’ve been fascinated by the date palms which line the avenues. The date palm is one of the few plants which is more or less native to this area. Besides being an attractive tree, it has a long history in the Gulf area of providing beduin people with sustenance and shelter.  What’s more, the dates produced by the trees are a significant source of income for the area.  According to a Wikipedia article (found here), the UAE is the world’s fourth largest date producer, with 710,00 tons of the delectable fruit annually. I’ve always loved dates, which are a splendid snack or addition to smoothies (they’re pretty nutritious, too, you know), and it’s great to be able to choose from all kinds when I go to any grocery store here. I’ve never lived in an area where the things grew before, and accordingly they had a sort of mystery for me.  I wondered to myself, what do they look like when they grow? How dry are they before they’re picked? Being here I’m able to watch them in their various stages of growth, and I find it ever so interesting. There is much I have yet to learn about date palms and production, but I will share what I’ve discovered thus far.

There are male and female palms, and the females must be pollinated manually in order to ensure a crop.  To that end, vendors sell the male flowers in the souk during February and March.  Here’s a video (not mine) from YouTube of the process being performed on a very small tree.  Here’s a much longer video of how it’s done in the tall trees.

The traditional falaj watering system is basically a series of canals which are blocked and unblocked, based on which sectors should be watered.

The traditional falaj watering system is basically a series of canals which are blocked and unblocked, based on which sectors should be watered.  Here you can see stones used for that purpose keeping water from flowing into this area.

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A falaj running in the Al Ain Oasis.

IMG_1633My research indicates that there are also sharp spines that are necessarily removed from the tree’s branches in the spring, but I’ve never actually witnessed that, and to the casual observer, the leaves of the trees here all seem to be smooth.  Are there some varieties of date palm trees that don’t have the spines?  I don’t think so.  Have a look at one of the images below, and you’ll notice that there are places where the leaves appear to have been skimmed with a knife.  Besides, you probably noticed the vicious spikes protruding from the branches of the tall trees in the second video above.  That’s proof, right?  Despite never noticing spines being sliced off, I have seen men working in the trees, using a nifty rope chair contraption which I’d love to show you, but when I tried to get a photo I was too far away, and the subject of the picture was unclear.

One of our readers asked if date palms need much water (you’ll see his comment below, since I’m updating my existing post with more information).  When I responded to his question, I wasn’t sure.  Since then, I’ve done a little research and the answer is not really.  They need about 300 liters a day, or about 30 minutes of watering.  To prevent disease to the tree and infestation of pests like the red palm weevil, which is seriously bad news for date farmers, the water should be kept off the trunk and applied only around the base of the tree.  If you want more information about this, click here.

Below are snapshots of the Al Ain Oasis and clusters of dates in different points of maturity.

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Thursday List: Things I Never Thought I’d Say Before I Moved Here

1. It’s 95F. Do you think it’s warm enough to go to the beach?

2. I am freezing, if I knew it was going to be 55 degrees outside, I would have brought my jacket along.

3. Yes. (To a person asking if they can take your baby to the back room of the office to show to their colleagues.)

4. I’ve been to 3 malls today.

5. Let’s go to the park tonight. I miss grass.

6. What time are we meeting your students at the mall?

7. We have not been to Dubai in, like, two weeks!

And the worst one:

8. I miss Walmart and Target.

Missing Spring

June is here, but it feels like we’ve never had a spring. My facebook and livejournal feeds have been flooded with photos of spring flowers for several months, and it made me so jealous. I miss camellias and azaleas, irises and hyacinths, tulips and jonquils, cherries, and Bradford pears, and dogwood, and tulip magnolias…

When I told Shon I missed spring, he said we sort of had one – in November, when it was cool enough for several things here to bloom. It’s not the same, however, not even remotely close.

In a country where there is summer and cooler summer (in the fall, I kept saying it was like a backwards Narnia – always summer and never Christmas), there is no death – or slumber – of winter months, but it means there is also no rebirth or awakening of spring. No sensation of a new life, a new beginning, a new hope. There is never the feeling of waking up one morning and seeing a tree in your yard with a full crown of fresh green leaves, while it was black and naked just yesterday.

It’s one of those things you never expect you’d miss, and then find out that you really do.