The Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been working to convert Saadiyat Island into an international tourist destination, at a cost of between US$22 and $27 billion. The low-lying island in the Arabian Gulf will get a campus of New York University (NYU), museums, including branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, and a performing arts center, each designed by world-renowned architectural firms, as well as golf courses, hotels, and luxury residences. The Tourism Development and Investment Company of Abu Dhabi (TDIC), a government-established and owned development company, is the primary development partner on the island; cultural institutions, including the Guggenheim and Louvre museums, have signed agreements with TDIC to develop outposts there. In January 2012 TDIC announced a new time frame for the museums, which have faced lengthy construction delays. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is now scheduled to open in 2015, while the Guggenheim is set for 2017. Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority (EAA), a government agency that provides strategic policy advice to the Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, is responsible for the development and construction of the NYU campus, scheduled to open in 2014.
Between October 2010 and January 2011 Human Rights Watch visited Saadiyat Island several times to update the findings of its May 2009 report, The Island of Happiness: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, which documented the severe exploitation and abuse of South Asian migrant workers on the island, and the lack of legal and institutional protections necessary to curtail the abuse.
Our research, based on interviews with 47 workers on the island, found that in spite of commitments by both the developers and their foreign partners to take steps to avoid abuse of migrant workers on Saadiyat Island, and in spite of some improvements in the working conditions of migrant workers, abuses are continuing. This new report documents both these continuing abuses and the gaps in protection that must be addressed in order to remedy them.
Our research found notable improvements in some areas, particularly in the regular payment of wages, rest breaks and days off, and employer-paid medical insurance. However, workers continue to report indebtedness for recruitment fees paid to obtain their jobs in the UAE. In some cases, they had paid fees just a few months before arriving in Abu Dhabi to obtain their most recent employment contracts.
Workers also reported a lack of information, or misleading information, about their terms of employment before arrival in the UAE, or the imposition of new, inferior contractual terms upon arrival; illegal salary deductions; and, for some workers who did not live in the Saadiyat Island Workers’ Village, overcrowded and unhygienic housing conditions. Contrary to commitments of the developers, only one worker of the 47 we interviewed reported that he retained custody of his passport, while the rest said that their employers retained their passports.
Following the publication of our 2009 report and in line with its recommendations, many of the institutions involved in the development of Saadiyat Island started to make commitments to avoid the abuses of workers on the island, including promises to ensure prompt payment of salaries, overtime pay, days off, vacations, and improved housing standards.
Most recently, they pledged to require contractors to reimburse workers who have paid recruitment fees in their home countries and to appoint independent monitors to detect and report publicly on violations of workers’ rights on the island.
These steps have the potential to improve conditions for workers but, as the mixed picture of continuing abuse presented in this report shows, there is still considerable progress to be made. Much will depend on how the commitments are carried out in practice. The developers have not yet reported publicly on any findings by the new monitors they say they have appointed. Moreover, to date they have not made public key components of their monitoring programs (such as terms of reference, scope of monitoring, and research methodology) that might demonstrate that the monitoring is credible and independent. It is unclear if they plan to do so.
Further clarity is also needed regarding measures to ensure compliance with the new commitments. TDIC has spelled out its contractual rights to fine or terminate contractors that do not comply with the measures designed to prevent human rights abuses, but enforcement appears to be dependent on TDIC alone. It is unclear what recourse NYU, the Louvre, and the Guggenheim have should TDIC and EAA fail to enforce their own commitments to worker protections.
Since the publication of our 2009 report, the UAE government has implemented significant new labor reforms, including expanding a ban on work during the hottest hours of the day between mid-July and mid-September, andcompulsory housing standards to improve living conditions for migrant workers. In January 2011 the government issued important new labor regulations to curb exploitative recruiting agents who entrap foreign workers with recruiting fees and false contracts, signaling a very positive commitment to address two of the country's most glaring human rights problems.
The commitments and legal reforms made on Saadiyat Island are welcome developments, but the true test lies in the impact of these changes on workers. The evidence to date indicates that there are significant problems yet to be overcome and that both the government and institutions need to do more to follow through on existing commitments and expand on them to address remaining weaknesses.
Our research points to the continuing gaps in protections. A number of the important commitments made by TDIC, EAA, and their foreign partners are being weakened or ignored in practice. Absent rigorous monitoring and penalties for non-compliance, there is a high risk that conditions for workers will not change substantially and that instead abusive contractors will continue to violate standards designed to protect workers’ rights, and workers will continue to face exploitation, with inadequate information about their rights or opportunities for redress.
To avoid this outcome, the developers and their foreign partners need to do more to ensure that adequate accountability measures are put in place. Their existing commitments should be strengthened to provide for monitoring that is transparent and independent, supported by clear and public guidelines and by the disclosure of comprehensive information about the terms of reference and monitoring methodologies of their new independent monitors.
TDIC and EAA must remain vigilant by penalizing and, failing adequate response, terminating relationships with contractors who continue to confiscate passports or work with agencies or sub-agencies that mislead workers regarding conditions of employment in the UAE, and should publicly disclose these penalties and terminations.
In light of the continued prevalence of workers reporting the payment of recruiting fees—the single greatest factor in creating conditions of forced labor—all parties must make a clear, unequivocal promise to ensure that workers are reimbursed any recruiting fees they are found to have paid to secure employment on the island. That way, if contractors fail in their promise, the national developers will be responsible and, as a last resort, workers can turn to them or to the foreign cultural and academic institutions for reimbursement. As between workers and these entities, there is no doubt that the national and foreign institutions are in a far better position to bear the risk and loss when contractors fail in their promise to pay such fees. Finally, NYU, Guggenheim, and the Louvre should obtain and disclose enforceable guarantees from EAA and TDIC, respectively, to uphold their commitments to protecting worker rights.