March 21, 2012

II. Since 2009: A Mixed Record

In October and November 2010, and again in January 2011, Human Rights Watch returned to Saadiyat Island to assess what these new policies have meant in practice for workers on the island. We interviewed 47 workers employed there, including workers from the Guggenheim and New York University (NYU) construction sites, workers constructing roads and other infrastructure servicing the Louvre site, workers from around the Cultural District (where all the museums will be housed), and workers we met elsewhere on the island.

Our new research indicates that there have been some significant improvements in problems previously documented: nearly all workers we interviewed reported that employers paid their wages into individual bank accounts, and all but one worker held medical insurance policies purchased by their employer. UAE law requires both practices. However, though at least one UAE court has ruled that employers are prohibited from confiscating worker passports, the problem of passport confiscation remained common among the workers who spoke to Human Rights Watch. Only one worker we interviewed said he retained custody of his passport, while the rest said that their employers retained their passports. And despite the newly implemented electronic payment system, designed to curb long-standing abuses vis-à-vis the non-payment of wages, some workers we spoke to reported that their employers continued to illegally deduct significant portions (up to 25 percent) of their wages each month, justified as reimbursement for their food costs.

Particularly with regard to the payment of recruitment fees, contract procedures, and redress for violations of workers’ rights, it appeared from our interviews that employment practices still failed to conform to the various commitments made by the academic and cultural institutions and their local partners. In some of the cases we researched, it additionally appeared that practices on the island continue to violate UAE law as well as international standards for labor rights and migrant workers’ rights.

Almost all of the workers we spoke to reported that they had paid high recruitment fees to obtain their jobs in the UAE. In some cases workers said they had paid these fees over three years ago, while in other cases, they had paid fees just a few months before arriving in Abu Dhabi—when the commitments to halt such practices was already in effect—to obtain their most recent employment contracts. Some workers said that they had not signed an employment contract before leaving their home countries, while others reported that, in cases where they had signed a contract in their home countries, employers required them to sign new contracts with different terms upon arrival in the UAE. Many workers reported that their jobs significantly differed from what agents had promised in their home country.

Both the Tourism Development and Investment Company of Abu Dhabi (TDIC) and Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority (EAA) (NYU’s local partner) have paid particular attention to workers’ housing conditions, with positive effect. In its Employment Practices Policy, TDIC requires contractors working on the island to house their workers in the Saadiyat Island Construction Village, a housing facility with the capacity to house 10,000 workers as of July 2011, and with a projected capacity of 40,000 workers upon completion. The Construction Village houses a maximum of six workers in each room and boasts amenities atypical of labor camps in the UAE, including an internet café, sports and recreational facilities, entertainment programming, and laundry services.

However, many of the workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they did not live in the TDIC Workers’ Village, but instead in alternative housing facilities in the Industrial Area and elsewhere in Abu Dhabi. Human Rights Watch visited several of these other labor camps and housing facilities, where residents included employees on the Guggenheim site. Workers in these housing facilities said they were not allowed visitors, suffered from regular water shortages, complained of poor levels of cleanliness, and lived in rooms crowded beyond their intended capacity, with between 14 and 16 people per room.

Responses to our New Findings

In February 2011 Human Rights Watch presented its most recent findings in a private letter (published in the appendix below) to the main parties involved in the Saadiyat Island development project, including TDIC, the EAA, NYU, the Guggenheim, and Agence France-Muséums (AFM), and held meetings with NYU, Guggenheim, and Louvre representatives, highlighting the continuing abuses on the island and again stressing the need for independent monitoring and real remedies for workers abused by their employers and recruiting agents. While all institutions responded to the findings of our letter, their responses varied substantially in terms of the information they provided and their willingness to acknowledge and address human rights violations caused by common employer practices in the UAE. At a minimum, all the institutions reiterated a broad commitment to protecting the rights of workers on their respective sites.[4]

However, despite having taken steps to incorporate protections of workers’ rights into their contract with TDIC, the Louvre and AFM have yet to make public their own commitments (independent of TDIC) to workers’ rights on the island, including reimbursement for recruiting fees.[5] During a May 2011 meeting with officials from the French Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and AFM, Human Rights Watch asked why the government had not made commitments similar to those made by other institutions on the island.[6] Christine Gavini-Chevet, advisor to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, “we believe we have been transparent about our engagement….We feel that public promises won’t bear fruits.” Gavini-Chevet assured Human Rights Watch that despite evidence of ongoing worker abuses on TDIC projects on the island, the French government “trusts TDIC” to keep its promises to avoid such abuses on the Louvre project, and that “the violations [Human Rights Watch] cited are not relevant to our site because we haven’t started construction yet.”[7] In fact, when Human Rights Watch visited the Louvre Abu Dhabi construction site in October 2010, pilings on the site had already been completed, indicating that construction had proceeded further than on either the Guggenheim or NYU sites. In August 2010 TDIC and AFM each also announced that TDIC had completed placement of the final pilings for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, with TDIC describing it as a “major construction milestone.”[8]

The joint written response we received from AFM and the Louvre to our February 2011 letter described the importance they attach to workers’ rights, indicating that they “have kept encouraging and enforcing socially responsible practices within the framework of the Louvre Abu Dhabi construction site” and stressing their strong commitment to “high social standards, not only on the building site but also in the entire Louvre Abu Dhabi project.” The letter did not, however, substantively address concerns about abuses on the island. Despite voicing strong commitments to ensure that workers’ rights will be respected, AFM continued discounting the museum’s responsibility to workers: “the French party does not have the responsibility of building the museum as the contracting authority is TDIC.”[9]

Since the letter, TDIC, NYU, and the EAA made significant new pledges to hire independent monitoring firms (although TDIC indicated that it already had an “independent monitoring consultant” and had carried out 48 audits) to review and issue public reports on compliance with rules safeguarding protections of workers’ rights on their projects (discussed in greater detail below), and TDIC matched the pledge by NYU and EAA to require contractors to reimburse workers for recruitment fees (discussed in greater detail below).

These new pledges mark major progress in the protection of worker rights by employers, and in reaffirming the responsibility and role of both the government and private sector actors in securing these protections. They have created new benchmarks for labor practices across the Gulf, particularly in the areas of recruitment fees, passport confiscation, and independent monitoring.  

However, our most recent research shows that additional measures are needed. Penalties and fines should be imposed on contractors found to have violated workers’ rights in order to deter future abuses. It is also necessary to establish an enforceable mechanism, such as contractual guarantee, through which NYU, the Louvre and the Guggenheim can hold the EAA and TDIC responsible if they fail to uphold their promises. The Louvre in particular must make existing promises regarding the protection of worker rights public, both to affirm their commitment to the protection of workers on their projects and to serve as an important precedent for best practices in private sector development projects in the UAE.

In addition, TDIC, the EAA and their international partners should clearly define remedies for workers whose rights are violated and specifically promise to reimburse workers found to have paid recruiting fees. While TDIC’s and EAA’s requirements for contractors with respect to worker rights, including the requirement to reimburse workers for recruiting fees, are admirable, workers are not a direct party to these agreements and do not have clear standing to seek their enforcement via the companies and institutions themselves. Ultimately, even if TDIC or EAA terminate an abusive contractor who has failed to reimburse workers for recruiting fees, there is no assurance that the worker will be compensated. For impoverished workers who cannot change jobs, depend upon their monthly wages to support families and pay debts back home, and who have no source of support or shelter should they quit their jobs with abusive employers, taking matters to the courts presents a heavy burden that discourages workers in all but the most dire circumstances. In light of the limited legal protections and access to justice in the UAE, these agencies need to guarantee that, at a minimum, workers on their sites will not serve as effective indentured servants, stuck in their jobs due to debts incurred by the imposition of unlawful recruiting fees.

While the workers we spoke to continued to report a range of problems in employment, we focus in this report on four ongoing problem areas: 1) recruitment fees, 2) contract substitution, 3) passport confiscation, and 4) the need for effective monitoring and remedies. We address some of the remaining problems reported by Saadiyat workers at the time of our research, including access to medical care, health and safety concerns, accommodation, wage deductions, and payment issues, in our letter to responsible companies and institutions, attached in an appendix to this report.

[4]Our letter and all responses we received are incorporated into our report and appear in full as appendices.

[5]Abu Dhabi is paying € 1 billion over 30 years including €400 million for the use of the Louvre name to Agence France-Muséums, which will administer it for the benefit of a consortium of French institutions. In addition these costs, Abu Dhabi will also pay the Agence France-Muséum another €165 million for its services. “Revealed: details of contract between Abu Dhabi and France,” The Art Newspaper, January 6, 2008, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/article.asp?id=8553 (accessed February 1, 2012). For a description of Agence France-Muséums, see www.agencefrancemuseums.fr (accessed February 2, 2012).

[6]Meeting between Human Rights Watch and Christine Gavini-Chevet, advisor to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anne-Solène Rolland, advisor to the French minister of culture, Manuel Rabate, secretary general, Agence France Museums, and others, Paris, France, May 11, 2011

[7] Ibid.

[8]“Final Pilings Completed on Louvre Abu Dhabi,” TDIC press release, August 23, 2010, http://www.tdic.ae/en/news/media-center/news/final-pilings-completed-on-louvre-abu-dhabi.html (accessed February 11, 2012).

[9] Louvre letter to Human Rights Watch, March, 2011, attached as an appendix to this report.