HRW report condemns Abu Dhabi over workers' conditions
By Richard High21 May 2009
A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the treatment of thousands of migrant workers constructing the US$ 27 billion Saadiyat Island development in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The 80-page report, The Island of Happiness: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, says many workers on the project "face severe exploitation and abuse, in some cases amounting to forced labour."
The report found that while the UAE government has moved to improve housing conditions and ensure the prompt payment of wages in recent years, many labour abuses "remain commonplace".
International institutions planning to open branches on the island - including the Guggenheim, New York University, and the French Museum Agency, which is responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi - should "urgently obtain enforceable contractual guarantees that construction companies will protect workers' fundamental rights on their projects," said the report.
"These international institutions need to show that they will not tolerate or benefit from the gross exploitation of these migrant workers," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW.
"The vague assurances they've received from their development partners are hollow substitutes for firm contractual agreements that their projects will be different from business as usual in Abu Dhabi."
Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the government developer in charge of Saadiyat, has dismissed the allegations, saying HRW's report was based on "questionable methodology and flawed research".
In a statement quoted by the UK's Financial Times newspaper, TDIC said it had fully complied with existing UAE labour laws, which prohibit the confiscation of passports and workers paying labour fees. It also claimed to be building "one of the most advanced accommodation and living facilities for construction workers in the Middle East".
Saadiyat Island (the "Island of happiness") is at the heart of the UAE capital Abu Dhabi's attempts to transform itself into an international tourist destination. The low-lying island will have four museums and a performing arts centre, as well as a campus of New York University (NYU), golf courses, hotels, and expensive residences.
Workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other South Asian countries have been constructing the island's infrastructure since Abu Dhabi formed the TDIC in 2005.
The HRW report, which is based on interviews with migrant workers, and meetings with UAE and French government officials, as well as officers of international institutions and corporations with projects on the island, documents "a cycle of abuse that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, badly paid, and unable to stand up for their rights or even quit their jobs."
"Workers are generally not aware of their rights and are afraid of expressing grievances, and independent and effective monitoring is lacking," said HRW.
"The museums and NYU should insist that their local development partners guarantee workers' basic rights, which at minimum should include reimbursement for unlawful recruiting fees, official contracts in their native language signed prior to their arrival, and the right to strike and bargain collectively," said Ms Whitson. "And they should insist on independent third-party monitoring of their projects, and impose meaningful penalties for violations."
Research by HRW on Saadiyat Island did show that the authorities have taken some positive steps.
"Although workers' accommodations were still under construction when HRW visited the island, they appeared to be relatively hygienic and not overcrowded. TDIC has sought contractual guarantees from construction companies that they will not confiscate workers' passports, use forced labour, or commit other abuses", said the report.
HRW said it contacted the construction companies, architectural firms, and international institutions working on the island to alert them to the need to take steps to ensure workers on their projects are not abused.
"Many did not reply to our letters. Among the Guggenheim, New York University, and the French Museum Agency, only the Agency has taken any steps to seek meaningful contractual guarantees from TDIC to allow independent monitoring of workers' rights, but even the Agency's contract lacks guarantees or provisions allowing it to enforce workers' rights," said HRW.