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Human Rights Watch Releases Damning Report on Labor Conditions in Abu Dhabi [UPDATED]

Workers return to their camps in Al Sajaa on Friday, a holiday (courtesy Gulf Labor)

Today Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its third report on violations of the rights of migrant workers on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, where the Guggenheim and Louvre museums are planning outposts and New York University (NYU) is planning a campus. Since HRW first drew attention to the labor abuses on Saadiyat Island in 2010, there have been a number of reports on the situation, by official monitoring groups, unofficial ones, and news outlets such as the New York Times and Vice. All have documented a consistent set of abuses: the withholding of wages from workers, the practice of charging recruitment fees and then failing to reimburse workers for them, the confiscation of workers’ passports, substandard housing conditions, the refusal to allow workers to organize in any way or strike (plus retaliation if they do), and failure to implement a system that would allow workers to express their grievances. The new HRW report finds that although there have been slight improvements on Saadiyat Island and in the UAE, the rampant violations continue.

The overarching narrative of the 82-page document is one of claims and ostensible efforts by involved parties to curb labor abuses — and the corresponding failure due to lack of enforcement. The UAE, for instance, has passed legislation in the past few years to make the kafala (sponsorship) system less exploitative, yet HRW questions how widely and effectively the reforms have been implemented. Similarly:

The UAE’s 1980 Labor Law prohibits employers from making workers pay recruitment fees but, as Human Rights Watch documented in 2006, 2009 and 2012, the practice is systematic and customary … In recent years, in part in response to these findings, the UAE has affirmed the prohibition on workers paying recruitment fees and strengthened its regulation of domestic recruiting agents. It has not, however, required employers to verify that they, and not their workers, have paid all recruiting fees.

The HRW report essentially argues that through loopholes and lax (or lack of) enforcement like this, the violation of workers’ rights continues unchecked. The two governmental agencies behind the Saadiyat projects, Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority (EAA) and Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), as well New York University, the Louvre, and Guggenheim have all issued pronouncements about protecting workers’ rights in various ways, but what they’ve actually done has been minimal. The EAA and TDIC both “drew up codes for contractors and subcontractors working on projects under their purview and appointed third-party monitors to assess the compliance of such companies with the codes,” the report states, but in both cases HRW found that the organizations have either failed to put systems in place to penalize offending contractors, or have simply neglected to do so.

And so, the horrid working conditions continue. Although the UAE refused to allow HRW personnel to conduct open research and interview workers on Saadiyat Island, members of the organization did speak to 113 workers employed by 7 different contractors who either worked at the site and lived elsewhere in the UAE or had recently been deported from the country. All of them paid recruitment fees to obtain their jobs, and not one had been reimbursed.

Deportation is a big point in the report; collectively, the interviewees claim that the UAE government has summarily deported thousands of workers employed by different contractors in retaliation for strikes. Some of those workers were actually involved in the strikes, protesting their employers’ failure to pay wages; others simply worked for the same companies where strikes were happening and were deported anyway.

“In the cases documented in this report, UAE authorities, in collusion with the workers’ employers, arbitrarily arrested and deported thousands of workers. The workers we interviewed had no lawyers present at their interrogations, were forced to sign statements that they did not understand, and had no ability to appeal the decisions to deport them,” the report states. Workers also told stories of being intimidated and beaten by police. One man named R.H. (the report uses initials in order to shield workers from repercussions) summed up the situation bleakly: “It’s easy for the company to deport 4000 workers and recruit another 4000 from Pakistan or India.”

The flip side of being deported is being trapped, and the report contains horrifying examples of that as well, including the story of a worker named S.A., who, somewhat ironically, was hired to monitor his company’s compliance with TDIC standards:

He said that the company was not paying workers’ salaries on time and that many employees had expired visas and could not return home because they would be liable for fines at the UAE airport that they could not pay. UAE immigration law makes non-nationals subject to financial penalties if they remain in the country after the expiry or cancellation of their work visa or residence permit …

Although S.A. said he did not pay a recruiting fee when he came to the UAE in November 2008, he said Robodh kept his passport and owed him four months of unpaid salary and statutory end-of-service benefits for five years of work. He said that the Robodh company manager told him that he would have to pay an expired work permit fine of approximately $272 (1000 AED) if he wanted to go home, and that because the company failed to renew his residency permit, the government would also fine him a base fee of $59.89 (220 AED), which increases by $4.90 (18 AED) for each day he overstays in the UAE. He said that he had incurred six months of these fees and would be unable to pay the fine at the airport if he attempted to leave. He feared authorities would arrest him for being resident in the country without a valid visa.

When workers are actually paid, the amount they’re given can be extremely low. The report breaks down one particularly distressing case:

At least three laborers said they earned a base rate of 700 dirhams per month ($190), rising to 1200 dirhams per month ($327) with overtime. These men say they spend 76.5 hours per week on site, and their rate of pay is thus approximately $1.04 per hour. If transport time of four hours per day is factored in — workers have no control over where they live, and many workers do not live in the Saadiyat Accommodation Village — this falls to $0.78 per hour.

The front cover of an informational brochure distributed during a protest at the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Noah Fischer of Occupy Museums (photo by Mostafa Heddaya/Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
The front cover of an informational brochure distributed during a protest at the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Noah Fischer of Occupy Museums (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

HRW also found evidence of continued squalid living conditions, at least for some workers. One example is described in harrowing detail:

Human Rights Watch has obtained video footage recorded on February 1, 2014 of the living conditions of a group of 27 workers at their quarters in Abu Dhabi city center. Eleven of the men told a local source, who shot the video, that they work as painters on the NYU site on Saadiyat Island for Falcon City Trading … The workers were living crammed into two rooms, 15 in one room and 12 in another. The video shows insects crawling around the kitchen; exposed electrical wires wrapped around a shower head; a room containing six bunk beds with makeshift beds on the floor underneath three of the bunk beds (in the room that slept 15 men); and a hole punched in the fire escape door, which was locked. Foodstuffs such as rice bags were stored in the bedroom, along with work tools.

The 27 men shared two small toilets and also washed their work clothes in the bathroom, they said. Several of the men complained of sickness and dizziness from inhaling paint, but said that they wore masks at work.

The conclusions drawn from the report will not be new to anyone following the situation on Saadiyat Island, but they are damning. “The abuses and difficulties obtaining remedies workers described are more serious than those that compliance monitors Mott McDonald and PwC have reported,” the document says.

And HRW makes abundantly clear that the blame for this should fall not only on the UAE and its agencies, but also on the supposedly progressive Western institutions involved: the Guggenheim, Louvre, and NYU. “Although the UAE government has primary responsibility for respecting, protecting, and fulfilling human rights, businesses also have human rights responsibilities,” the authors write. “Businesses should respect all human rights, avoid complicity in abuses, and adequately remedy them if they occur … The Guiding Principles oblige any company to assess any negative human rights impacts in order to mitigate and remedy them.”

As for how they should do that, a section of the report is devoted to detailing recommendations for, respectively, the UAE government; EAA and TDIC; Labor-Sending Countries Including Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka; and the French Government, Agence France-Muséums, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and New York University going forward. For the final group, HRW suggests making development of the Saadiyat Island projects “dependent on public commitments” from UAE authorities that they will implement a long list of labor reforms and “obtain[ing] representations” from EAA and TDIC that all contractors and employers will set up “conciliation and mediation proceedings.” Good ideas, although given how little “public commitments” and “representations” have done to change the situation in the past five years, something a bit stronger may prove necessary.

Update, 2/17: TDIC has sent Hyperallergic a statement responding to and refuting the HRW report. It reads, in part:

TDIC rejects the report’s unfounded conclusions, which are outdated and based on unknown methodologies even as TDIC has been transparent in its efforts. …

Many groups, including British Members of Parliament, museum partners, senior foreign diplomats and numerous others have toured Saadiyat’s construction sites and worker housing facilities and have praised both the quality of the conditions and the standard provided. The efforts and processes have led many to single out TDIC as a leader that has set a high benchmark for the region’s construction industry and serves as a model for improving labour conditions in the region.

To ensure compliance with the EPP [Employment Practices Policy], TDIC has retained international auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to independently monitor the works on Saadiyat throughout the year and release its findings to the public at the end of every year. These findings have helped TDIC spot issues and make modifications where needed. We have also taken action whenever there is a credible complaint, including evicting contractors who have flouted the EPP.

The latest PwC monitoring report, released in December 2014, was based on direct interviews with 1,050 workers, far from the anecdotal examples provided by HRW. In contrast, PwC noted significant achievements, including:

  • 100% of workers have access to their passport
  • High standard of accommodation, including the provision of food, cleaning and daily laundry services
  • The provision of medical insurance to 99% of workers
  • A well-established grievance procedure for workers and ease of lodging complaints
  • An enforced system of penalties against contractors who breach TDIC’s employment policies

TDIC has always been open to engaging in a constructive dialogue around the employment of expatriate labour around the world. TDIC will continue to work closely with its partners and make enhancements where they can be done within its capacity. TDIC is committed to making sure that high standards of worker welfare continue to be implemented on all of its work sites.

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