The remarkable development boom in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, both located in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), is completely transforming these cities’ skylines and attracting the world’s top architects. But it is also exacting a serious cost. Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleges that the migrant workers vital to constructing these projects are subject to “abusive labor practices”—and architects, it contends, are complicit in the problem.

In a report titled “Building Towers, Cheating Workers,” published last November, HRW catalogued a host of abusive practices including nonpayment of wages, squalid or dangerous working and living conditions, and the denial of proper medical care. It stated that in 2004 alone, more than 800 construction workers died out of an estimated 2.7 million—although the government claimed only 34 deaths that year. In comparison, the U.S. Department of Labor tracked 1,186 fatalities out of roughly 9 million workers in 2005.

Most laborers in the U.A.E. come from South Asian nations including Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka. Many find work by taking expensive loans, averaging $2,000 to $3,000, from recruiting agencies in their home countries—and then devote most of their wages to paying off these advances. Employers in Dubai often pay far less than promised, HRW alleges, and most hold workers’ passports for leverage. The average worker earns $175 per month.

Hadi Ghaemi, who authored the HRW report, says that exact statistics are almost impossible to find because the U.A.E. releases little data, but that the government’s own figures indicate more than 20,000 migrant workers have filed complaints about the nonpayment of wages and “labor camp” conditions. Workers have also staged riots. In March, at the site of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Burj Dubai (photos above), hundreds of frustrated laborers smashed cars and ransacked offices, causing an estimated $1 million in damages, according to The Associated Press.

Nicholas Labuschagne, an adviser to the U.A.E. government and an executive at Dubai Holding, one of the country’s key investment firms, says that the U.A.E. is addressing these problems. “[U.A.E. Prime Minister] Sheik Mohammed is embarrassed by the criticism that the labor issues have drawn,” he says. “We’re hoping we can show some very significant progress within the next six months.”

Since 2006, Labuschagne notes, the U.A.E. Ministry of Labor has conducted 83,000 inspection visits, resulting in sanctions against 6,000 firms for job-site violations, and has suspended work permits at 1,300 businesses due to the nonpayment of wages. Moreover, the government has hired 2,000 more inspectors, who are now being trained, and is developing a new center to track labor statistics, including worker injuries and deaths. And to combat unscrupulous recruiting agencies, the U.A.E. is developing agreements with nearby countries to ensure that all workers fully understand their contracts before being granted work visas.

Despite these steps, the main sticking point remains labor organizing, which Labuschagne says is a thorny security issue in a country where the estimated 2.7 million immigrant laborers rivals the size of a native-born population of 4.5 million people; in Dubai alone, there are almost 1 million migrant workers, compared to 1.4 million residents. In February, the U.A.E. released the draft of a revised labor law requiring companies to pay for workers’ health care and employment permits, and requiring improvements in construction-site safety. But Ghaemi notes that there is no time frame for this draft to become law. A March follow-up report by HRW called the draft a “violation of international standards” and cited “major omissions,” including the prohibition of labor organizing and strikes, ambiguity about the minimum employment age, the absence of provisions to ban passport confiscation, and inadequate enforcement or penalties for violations of the law.

Ghaemi contends that although architecture firms in the U.A.E. rarely control worker conditions, they should consider themselves complicit in abuses. “The people designing these facilities should know brick by brick how they are being built,” he says. “Labor is an inseparable part of getting all of these structures up.”

Several architects working in the U.A.E.—including SOM, Perkins + Will, and FXFowle—were contacted for their opinions but most declined comment. Among those that would talk was HOK. “We’re a small component in the equation, and I don’t have control over how other people operate,” says Daniel Hajjar, regional manager for its Gulf operations. “But I do know how we operate: We operate [in Dubai] as we would if we were in the United States. We don’t engage in any activities that would put us at risk with the Department of Labor.” He adds that the same goes for firms with whom HOK works on jobs. “The contractors here have really raised the bar in terms of how they work.”

HRW hopes that these trickle-down improvements will spread to other parts of the world where abuses are common, such as China and Malaysia. But absent a concerted push for reforms, or pressure on construction companies, observers fear that governments will continue to look the other way.