Hundreds of South Asian labourers took to the streets in Dubai on Tuesday to protest unpaid wages and working conditions, prompting the emirate to mobilise riot police. Local reports said the striking workers ripped down corrugated iron fences at a development belonging to Emaar Properties and even came onto the streets to block traffic near the Dubai Mall. The sight of protesting labourers is jarring in a country where demonstrations and unionising are illegal and could easily lead to deportation.

“How much money can we send home now?” one worker at the scene, told the Wall Street Journal. “We are fed like animals.” The Journal reported that the workers were protesting the company's decision to cut pay citing a loss of productivity and also because they were being fed expired food.

The riot police were called out as hundreds of workers spilled out onto the streets near a popular tourist destination and were obstructing traffic. A government Twitter account later posted a message saying the Dubai Police had "resolved" the issue of the workers who had "gathered" there.

Strikes and unionising are illegal in Dubai and in most Gulf countries, where millions of South Asian labourers toil away in conditions that have been compared to slavery. Despite this, workers do occasionally attempt to have their voices heard, although this is rarely done through demonstrations

In 2013, for example, labourers in Dubai attempted to protest their treatment by Arabtec, a construction company, by simply not turning up to work. That strike eventually ended, but not because the company had resolved the labourers' concerns. Instead, a combination of police pressure and deportation orders ended up ensuring that workers would not want to raise their voices. An official report by the Dubai government counted 34 labour strikes in the emirate in 2014, involving nearly 26,000 workers, many of which went the way of 2013 protest.

Dubai, in some ways, is almost more progressive here because it actually counts strikes and has sought to improve conditions for workers through institutional mechanisms to protect wage payment and prevent mistreatment. Other emirates and countries in the region rarely count labour strikes and few offer more than lip service when it comes to allegations of human rights.

Qatar, which has been under additional scrutiny ever since it won a bid to host the football world cup in 2022, has frequently suggested that it will alter local laws that put the lives of workers almost entirely in their employers' hands. These promises however rarely result in much actual change. Work in much of the region is still determined by some form of the kafala system — an employment structure that has been compared to slavery.

The problem however, isn't purely one of mistreatment in Gulf countries. Research has suggested that it actually starts right at home in South Asia, with unscrupulous labour agents and unreliable companies.