March 21, 2012

I. Background

Human Rights Watch’s 2009 “Island of Happiness” Report

Human Rights Watch’s May 2009 report, The Island of Happiness: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, documented a pattern of severe exploitation and abuse of South Asian migrant workers in the showcase developments on Saadiyat Island in the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Almost all of the 94 migrant workers interviewed for the report said they paid recruitment fees of up to US$4,100, or between one and three years’ of their home countries’ annual Gross Domestic Products (GDP) per capita, to recruitment agencies in order to obtain their jobs in the UAE. With meager incomes and few assets, workers often took out loans at high monthly interest rates in order to pay these fees, which they then spent months or years working to pay back.

Once in the UAE, many workers we interviewed found that their employers required them to sign new agreements. Some found that recruiting agents had misinformed them about the types of job they would have, or the terms of employment, while others faced exploitation or abuse from their employers in the UAE. Like other migrant workers in the UAE all were denied the right to change jobs under the UAE’s restrictive immigration sponsorship laws. Workers interviewed said that employers universally confiscated passports from migrant workers.

The report called on the relevant local authorities, including the Tourism Development and Investment Company of Abu Dhabi (TDIC) and Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority (EAA), foreign cultural and academic institutions, including New York University (NYU), the Guggenheim, and Agence France-Muséums (AFM), the agency overseeing the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and contractors operating on the island, to uphold international human rights and labor standards and UAE laws designed to protect workers’ rights, especially with respect to confiscation of workers’ passports by employers and payment of recruitment fees by workers. Human Rights Watch asked that the institutions and their development partners guarantee minimum protections for workers to ensure that no workers on their projects should arrive in the UAE in a state of indebtedness because of payment of recruitment fees or should be unable to go home because of the confiscation of their passports. Such practices violate existing UAE laws and court rulings, which employers frequently flout in practice with no consequence from the authorities. To address this lack of accountability, as well as the failure of the UAE government to require public disclosure of death and injury rates at worksites, we further called upon the companies and institutions involved to institute a rigorous independent monitoring program to detect and report publicly on violations of workers’ rights and health and safety conditions and records.

Lastly, the report called on these institutions to establish clear mechanisms for redress and compensation in cases where employers had violated their workers’ rights.

Responses to 2009 Report

In 2010, the EAA, TDIC, NYU and the Guggenheim issued a number of public promises to protect the workers building their sites. On February 3, 2010, NYU and the EAA publicly announced that they would require all employers associated with the NYU Abu Dhabi project to reimburse workers for any fees associated with their recruitment. The announcement also promised that employees would retain all of their personal documents, including passports, specified minimum housing standards, and reiterated requirements under UAE law including timely wage payments through bank accounts and employer-paid medical insurance.

In September 2010 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and TDIC, the development company responsible for the bulk of Saadiyat Island construction, including museums in the Cultural District, issued a joint statement publicizing TDIC’s employment practices policy effective since July 2010 that sets certain labor standards for workers employed on the majority of Saadiyat Island projects, including the Abu Dhabi branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums. Human Rights Watch publicly recognized the significance of these steps.

Agence France-Muséums (AFM) and the Louvre, by contrast, have to date not publicly articulated their approach to addressing the human rights of the migrant workers building their museum, although they have given some explanations privately in response to concerns raised.In correspondence and in meetings with Human Rights Watch, they spoke of the French government’s historical commitment to protecting labor rights, and stressed that issues identified in our 2009 report remained of concern to them. They also explained that the contractual agreement between AFM and TDIC includes a requirement (that preceded our 2009 report) that workers’ conditions on the Louvre Abu Dhabi project meet the international labor standards set in the Social Accountability 8000 standard (known as SA8000), a code meant to guide companies’ compliance with internationally-recognized workers’ rights. While the reference to the Social SA 8000 in the contract is an important step toward ensuring that workers are treated fairly and in compliance with international human rights law, it remains unclear how this provision of the agreement is applied in practice. In discussions with Human Rights Watch, Louvre officials said that they will rely upon the findings of the TDIC-hired labor monitor to observe conditions on the Louvre site and, moreover, clarified that that the contractual provisions are not accompanied by an enforceable guarantee that would clearly allow AFM to take measures if it learned that the agreed standards were being disregarded.

Responsibility of Institutions for Protection of Workers’ Rights

The government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has an obligation to protect workers from abuses. It has taken some steps to improve the country’s labor regulations to address weaknesses. Yet enforcement is lax, and workers have only limited access to legal and judicial remedies in the UAE. The authorities must do more to reduce the abuses against migrant workers on Saadiyat Island.

The private sector also must play a role in tackling human rights abuses. Although the UAE government has primary responsibility for respecting, protecting, and fulfilling human rights, businesses also have human rights responsibilities. This basic principle has achieved wide international recognition and is reflected in various norms and guidelines.[1]

The longstanding concept that businesses have human rights responsibilities secured additional support during the 2005-2011 tenure of the United Nations special representative on business and human rights, Professor John Ruggie. As elaborated in the “Protect, Respect and Remedy” framework and the “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” for their implementation, which were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, businesses should respect all human rights, avoid complicity in abuses, and adequately remedy them if they occur.[2] Elsewhere, Ruggie has explicitly noted that “[t]he corporate responsibility to respect human rights … applies across an enterprise’s activities and through its relationships with other parties, such as business partners, entities in its value chain, other non-state actors and state agents.”[3]

[1] The preambles to key human rights treaties recognize that ensuring respect for human rights is a shared responsibility that extends to “every organ of society,” not only to states. In addition, the preambles of both the ICCPR and ICESCR recognize that “individuals” have human rights responsibilities, a term that can incorporate juridical persons (including businesses) as well as natural persons.

[2] See United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), Resolution 8/7, “Mandate of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises,” June 18, 2008; and HRC, Resolution A/HRC/17/L.17/Rev.1, “Human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises,” June 16, 2011.

[3] Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, “The Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights in Supply Chains,” Discussion Paper for the 10th OECD Roundtable on Corporate Responsibility, June 30, 2010, http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/17/50/45535896.pdf.