As a crisis that was precipitated in part by risky forms of investment in the built environment, construction workers, and particularly migrants employed in the industry have been at the forefront of job-losses worldwide since 2008. I offer a reading of construction unemployment through David Harvey’s theorisation of the secondary circuit of capital, arguing that these trends reflect the industry’s immanent connections to the built environment and to volatile, debt-fuelled urbanisation strategies which have played a crucial role in absorbing global capital surpluses in recent years. I ground this international perspective through a case study on the crisis experiences of a group of migrant construction workers from the south Indian state of Kerala who lost their jobs in Dubai in 2009. Based on interviews with migrants who returned home following the collapse of the emirate’s construction sector, I explore how a number of place-specific relationships that transect the Kerala–Dubai construction labour market served to compound these workers’ economic insecurity following the crisis. These include the immense migration debts that migrants shouldered, the insecure and exploitative character of employment in Dubai’s building trades, and the particular vulnerability of Dubai’s construction markets to the retreat of finance capital from the Gulf region in 2008. Workers’ accounts offer insights into the uneven and trans-local geometries of risk that define contemporary construction work in Dubai. More broadly, they provide a key perspective on the precarious producer geographies that underpin the secondary circuit of capital.
I explore the impacts of the crisis on Keralite construction migrants in Dubai. Construction has been integral to global urban strategies to absorb surplus capital.
A debt-based development regime worsened the effects of the crisis in Dubai.
Migration debt and employer abuse compounded the effects of job loss on migrants.