Photo © Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch
More than five years since Human Rights Watch (HRW) first documented migrant labor abuses on Saadiyat Island—the impressive cultural development off the coast of Abu Dhabi—abuse remains, according to a progress report issued by the organization today.
The nonprofit found that in spite of amendments to labor laws in the United Arab Emirates, the appointment of independent monitors, and the commitment of institutions, many migrant laborers still face steep recruitment fees, unpaid wages, the confiscation of passports, inadequate housing, and deportation.
“There is such a paucity of legislation [in the UAE] to protect workers, that’s why we are looking for the private entities and the semi-private entities to take on the reform issues,” said Sarah Lee Whitson, executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division at a press conference. “Frankly if they addressed these issues six years ago when we first raised them… we may not be here, issuing our third report finding many of the same problems.” HRW’s first report was released in 2009.
HRW estimates that there are more than five million migrant workers in the UAE, many of whom have been hired to construct the starchitect-studded Saadiyat Island project, home to the Rafael Viñoly-designed New York University Abu Dhabi (completed last year), Norman Foster’s Zayed National Museum (opening next year), Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim satellite (projected to open in 2017), and Jean Nouvel’s Louvre satellite, expected to open this year.
In spite of promises made on the behalf of many of these institutions—including New York University and the Guggenheim— and the appointment of outside investigators including Mott MacDonald and Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), significant improvements still must be made, the report says.
“Sway, influence, leverage, they [the institutions] have it all. The notion that they are weak actors that can’t really influence this is a denial of the political reality of their involvement there,” Nicholas McGeehan, the author of the report, told RECORD. McGeehan was indefinitely barred from entering the UAE last January.
HRW conducted research for the report between January and November 2014. The organization interviewed 113 current and former Saadiyat Island workers in Bangladesh and the UAE.
The report reveals that in spite of promises for reform, some employers are still failing to reimburse recruitment fees, are withholding wages, and confiscating worker passports. The report also found that outside the housing complex sponsored by the master developer, Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), the Saadiyat Accommodation Village (SAV), workers continue to live in inadequate facilities. In one case, the researchers encountered a group of painters working on the NYU project living in a squalid two-bedroom dwelling, 15 men living in one room, a dozen in the other, some sleeping on mats beneath bunk beds.
Most disturbing, the report documents mass deportations of workers on the Louvre and NYU projects after strikes in both external camps and at the SAV, where one Bangladeshi man interviewed said he was one of about 500 men sent home from the strike. TDIC maintains these deportations were the result of ethnic tension within the camps.
Construction is still on hold at the Guggenheim site. As a result, the report doesn’t include interviews with that project’s construction workers. Frank Gehry, with the aid of a human rights lawyer, has taken steps to try to safeguard worker’s rights once construction resumes. As a result, TDIC enlisted PwC to monitor conditions on the ground. PwC interviewed 1,050 workers on the TDIC projects for its 2014 annual report—accounting for 14.4 percent of workers there. It reported serious problems with compliance, including that 88 percent of those interviewed paid recruitment fees. HRW’s findings corroborate PwC’s research, but HRW says TDIC has done little to remedy the issues in spite of the findings.
Because of this, McGeehan says, pressure must remain on the Guggenheim project, even though construction has yet to begin: “The Guggenheim is under TDIC, which is the governmental developer. What is happening on the Louvre contract has implications for what could happen on the Guggenheim.”
While the report acknowledges that significant progress has been made, many migrants have been left out. In the report, HRW urges the UAE government, among other recommendations, to protect workers’ right to strike, implement a minimum wage, and to pass legislation prohibiting the retention of passports by employers. HRW advises that the development organizations TDIC and the Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority terminate relationships with violating subcontractors, guarantee that subcontractors have reimbursed recruitment fees, and ensure that subcontractors are able to pay promised wages, and conduct inspections of accommodations.
Ali Al Hammadi, CEO of TDIC, wrote in a response letter to HRW, “[Workers’ rights] is not solely a TDIC challenge alone, but rather an international matter…it is only fair to ask HRW what they have done to resolve this issue from its root rather than painting a misleading picture to show that it is a TDIC or Saadiyat problem in isolation.”
HRW views it differently. “They’re lucky that Frank Gehry is still on the project and that these institutions are still prepared to set foot on this island,” said McGeehan. “The institutions should take the issue by the scruff of the neck. Now they’re dancing around it.”