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TED2009

Cameron Sinclair: The refugees of boom-and-bust

Filmed:

At TEDGlobal U, Cameron Sinclair shows the unreported cost of real estate megaprojects gone bust: thousands of migrant construction laborers left stranded and penniless. To his fellow architects, he says there is only one ethical response.

- Co-founder, Architecture for Humanity
2006 TED Prize winner Cameron Sinclair is co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit that seeks architecture solutions to global crises -- and acts as a conduit between the design community and the world's humanitarian needs. Full bio

A few years ago, my eyes were opened
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to the dark side of the construction industry.
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In 2006, young Qatari students
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took me to go and see the migrant worker camps.
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And since then I've followed the unfolding issue of worker rights.
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In the last six months, more than 300 skyscrapers
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in the UAE have been put on hold or canceled.
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Behind the headlines that lay behind these buildings
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is the fate of the often-indentured construction worker.
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1.1 million of them.
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Mainly Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan
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and Nepalese, these laborers risk everything
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to make money for their families back home.
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They pay a middle-man thousands of dollars to be there.
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And when they arrive, they find themselves in labor camps with no water,
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no air conditioning, and their passports taken away.
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While it's easy to point the finger at local officials and higher authorities,
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99 percent of these people are hired by the private sector,
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and so therefore we're equally, if not more, accountable.
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Groups like Buildsafe UAE have emerged,
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but the numbers are simply overwhelming.
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In August 2008,
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UAE public officials noted
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that 40 percent of the country's 1,098 labor camps
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had violated minimum health and fire safety regulations.
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And last summer, more than 10,000 workers
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protested for the non-payment of wages,
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for the poor quality of food, and inadequate housing.
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And then the financial collapse happened.
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When the contractors have gone bust,
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as they've been overleveraged like everyone else,
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the difference is everything goes missing,
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documentation, passports,
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and tickets home for these workers.
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Currently, right now, thousands of workers are abandoned.
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There is no way back home.
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And there is no way, and no proof of arrival.
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These are the boom-and-bust refugees.
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The question is, as a building professional,
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as an architect, an engineer, as a developer,
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if you know this is going on,
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as we go to the sights every single week,
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are you complacent or complicit
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in the human rights violations?
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So let's forget your environmental footprint.
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Let's think about your ethical footprint.
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What good is it
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to build a zero-carbon, energy efficient complex,
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when the labor producing this architectural gem
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is unethical at best?
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Now, recently I've been told I've been taking the high road.
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But, quite frankly, on this issue,
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there is no other road.
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So let's not forget who is really paying the price of this financial collapse.
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And that as we worry about our next job in the office,
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the next design that we can get, to keep our workers.
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Let's not forget these men, who are truly dying to work.
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Thank you.
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(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Cameron Sinclair - Co-founder, Architecture for Humanity
2006 TED Prize winner Cameron Sinclair is co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit that seeks architecture solutions to global crises -- and acts as a conduit between the design community and the world's humanitarian needs.

Why you should listen

After training as an architect, Cameron Sinclair (then age 24) joined Kate Stohr to found Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit that helps architects apply their skills to humanitarian efforts. Starting with just $700 and a simple web site in 1999, AFH has grown into an international hub for humanitarian design, offering innovative solutions to housing problems in all corners of the globe.

Whether rebuilding earthquake-ravaged Bam in Iran, designing a soccer field doubling as an HIV/AIDS clinic in Africa, housing refugees on the Afghan border, or helping Katrina victims rebuild, Architecture for Humanity works by Sinclair's mantra: "Design like you give a damn." (Sinclair and Stohr cowrote a book by the same name, released in 2006.)

A regular contributor to the sustainability blog Worldchanging.com, Sinclair is now working on the Open Architecture Network, born from the wish he made when he accepted the 2006 TED Prize: to build a global, open-source network where architects, governments and NGOs can share and implement design plans to house the world.

More profile about the speaker
Cameron Sinclair | Speaker | TED.com