March 21, 2012

III. Key Issues


Recruitment Fees

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented how workers’ indebtedness for recruitment fees remains a key factor in their exploitation and abuse across the Gulf region. Until workers pay back debts incurred through these recruitment fees, they are effectively trapped in their jobs—including jobs that they did not agree to, or where employers abuse their rights.[10] Strict limits on the right of migrant workers to change employers in the UAE, employer confiscation of worker passports, and employer control over worker visas in the country have trapped workers even with abusive employers, in conditions that often amount to forced labor.[11]

UAE law explicitly prohibits recruitment agents from charging workers any fees associated with their recruitment or travel costs. [12] On January 15, 2011, the UAE government passed a new law to address one aspect of the recruiting fee problem by introducing regulations intended to curb recruiting agents who charge recruiting fees and induce workers with false contracts. The new regulations explicitly prohibit UAE recruitment agencies from charging workers or intermediaries recruitment fees. If a worker is found to have paid a fee to anyone associated with an Emirati recruitment agency either inside or outside the UAE, the Labor Ministry may compel the agency to reimburse the worker. The regulations also hold a recruitment agency partly liable if the employer with whom the agency places workers does not pay the workers. Furthermore, the regulations ban recruiters from placing workers with companies involved in collective labor disputes. While the regulations require UAE recruiters to put down a 300,000 dirham (US$81,000) minimum deposit, which should be available to pay workers' salaries if the company fails to do so, there is no provision to reimburse recruiting fees. However, the regulations do require agencies to pay 2,000 dirhams (US$540) per worker for insurance and allow the Ministry of Labor to revoke or suspend an agency’s license in the event that an agency violates any of the regulation’s provisions.

In March 2011 the Tourism Development and Investment Company of Abu Dhabi ( TDIC) amended its Employment Practices Policy to require that contractors reimburse workers found to have paid any recruitment costs or fees associated with their employment on Saadiyat Island, matching a pledge by New York University (NYU) and Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority ( EAA). However, none of the institutions have specified any mechanisms through which workers can register complaints and seek remedy for employers’ failure to reimburse them. Without any such provisions, workers have little recourse should employers ignore the pledge that TDIC and EAA have made. There is also a lack of transparency regarding how many, if any, workers have ever received reimbursement.

During our research in October/November 2010 and January 2011, workers on Saadiyat Island told us they continued to pay high recruitment fees, despite promises by the institutions to address this problem. Almost all of the workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported paying between US$900 and $3,350 to agents in their home countries when seeking employment in the UAE, including some who had arrived recently and worked only on TDIC projects on Saadiyat Island (meaning that the fees were charged in contravention of TDIC’s 2009 pledge). They said they continued to take loans at high interest rates, to mortgage family property, and to exhaust hard-won savings to raise the funds to pay recruitment fees, for the promise of better employment in the UAE.

For example, Kabir A., a 32-year-old worker from Bangladesh, said that he had mortgaged his family’s farm land to pay a recruitment fee of 200,000 Bangladeshi taka (US$2,682), and that after two years of working in the UAE, he still had not paid off his loan.[13] “We [all] bring loans from our side,” he said. “If we can do this job for six years continuously, we can make some money. Three years is not enough.”[14]

Ali R., a worker from Bangladesh who worked for Leighton al-Habtoor, told Human Rights Watch that he had paid 190,000 Bangladeshi taka (US$2,668) to a recruitment agent in his country seven months earlier.[15] Jamshid S., an al-Jaber employee from Punjab, India, said that he had paid 45,000 Indian rupees (US$990) in recruitment fees eight months earlier.[16]

Human Rights Watch notes that many of the workers on the NYU construction site whom we interviewed reported that while they paid fees to obtain jobs in the UAE, they had not paid recruitment fees to obtain their most recent employment contract to work on the NYU site. Many of these workers said they had paid fees to recruitment agencies in their home countries more than five years before. However, some newer arrivals reported that they had paid fees more recently. Shahin M., a worker from Bangladesh, said he had paid 175,000 Bangladeshi taka (US$ 2,347) to come to the UAE 28 months before, and was still employed on his initial contract.

Ensuring that workers do not pay recruitment fees themselves will require employers to proactively seek out and engage in methods of responsible recruiting—methods which are not currently the industry standard in the UAE. TDIC’s employment policy states that contractors may not charge TDIC additional amounts for bringing their practices into compliance—meaning that all contractors hired to date will have to absorb the added costs of complying with TDIC’s March 2011 commitment to reimburse workers for their recruitment fees until they take steps to ensure that workers stop paying such fees.[17] To successfully implement these policies and ensure that contractors pay all workers’ recruiting fees (a major break with past recruitment practices), both TDIC and NYU/EAA should not only levy effective penalties against those who violate the updated policy, but also explicitly commit to reimbursing recruitment fees that workers are found to have paid when contractors fail to do so. As a failsafe—given how significant recruitment fees are to the exploitation and abuse of workers—NYU, the Guggenheim, and AFM/the Louvre should directly reimburse any outstanding fees to workers on their respective sites whenever TDIC or the EAA fails to fulfill this obligation. These institutions, having received considerable financial inducements from the UAE in exchange for their branches, are in a much better position to accept this financial burden than the laborers building their institutions for meager salaries. If these institutions are genuine about preventing labor abuses at their sites, they need to go beyond pledges and demonstrate their commitments by financially guaranteeing that, as a last resort, they will reimburse any laborer on their site who has paid recruitment fees and not been reimbursed, despite pledges by contractors and developers to pay these fees.


  • Contractors should provide to TDIC and/or EAA, as the case may be, documentation to prove that either they, the subcontractor, the labor supplier, or another affiliated company have paid all the recruitment fees, including visa fees and travel costs, for each worker hired;
  • Contractors should obtain, or require recruiting agents to obtain, a formal statement from each worker signed or formally approved in their home country stating that he has not paid any recruiting fees, as well as from the recruiting agency stating that the agency has not charged any fees;
  • Contractors should interview each worker currently employed on a project and ask whether he has paid any recruitment fees, visa fees, or travel costs to any labor supply agency, and reimburse them for any such fees or costs found to have been paid;
  • TDIC and EAA should monitor compliance by contractors and subcontractors through an independent and transparent process that includes interviews with workers in their native language. They should penalize contractors working with agents or sub-agents who are found to have charged workers recruitment fees, and should terminate relationships with contractors that continue to work with agencies or sub-agencies that charge workers fees. The penalties should be severe enough to act as deterrent rather than a routine cost of business. The Guggenheim, the Louvre/AFM, and NYU should seek regular updates on compliance and insist that their development partners enforce penalties for violations and terminate relationships with repeat violators; and
  • TDIC and the EAA should explicitly commit to reimbursing workers for any recruiting fees they are found to have paid when contractors have failed to do so. If TDIC or the EAA also fails to fulfill this obligation, NYU, the Guggenheim and AFM/the Louvre should step in to reimburse any outstanding recruitment fees paid by workers on their respective sites.


Contract Substitution and Misrepresentation

Not only do recruitment agencies demand high recruitment fees in return for jobs in the UAE, they often provide incorrect or inadequate information about what the jobs entail. As a result, workers can end up incurring large debts on the basis of false promises. Workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch had either failed to sign any contract in their home country, relying on verbal promises made by recruiters, or had signed contracts prior to their departures that did not match the employment or salaries they found upon arrival. When they learned the truth, they had already paid fees and migrated thousands of miles from home, leaving them to choose between forfeiting their investment and returning home, or accepting the terms they found and staying in a job they might never have accepted had they been given a true picture of the terms and conditions of employment.

TDIC’s employment policy states that “New employee’s [sic] shall receive, in their own language, and acknowledge receipt of official confirmation of his terms of employment, including but not limited to all wage information before leaving his country of origin, or where the Employee is already in the UAE, before the Employee is assigned to the Site.”[18] NYU/EAA pledges on workers’ rights remain silent on the issue of workers’ contracts.

Human Rights Watch’s research shows that UAE authorities, contractors, and developers have made little effort to ensure that workers obtain accurate pre-departure information in the recruitment process, and remedies for workers whom agents cheat or deceive regarding their employment. Contract substitution, deception, or misinformation about the nature or terms of employment, and workers’ lack of effective remedies when they find that their employment does not match contracts or promises made back home, remain major problems on Saadiyat Island.

Mizan R. from Bangladesh had worked for 16 months as an “electrical helper” in the UAE. He said that he had paid 200,000 Bangladeshi taka (US$ 2,677) to an agent in Dhaka, to obtain his job. He told Human Rights Watch:

[In Bangladesh,] I didn’t sign a contract—the agency signed for me. They told me my salary would be 900 dirhams [US$ 245] for basic salary. But I get only 600 dirhams [163.40] basic salary.[19] I pay for my own food; I spend about 250 dirhams [US$ 68/per month.] When I came to camp, they brought a paper and told me to sign. I saw only the salary. It was written in English, and I had no time to read it. I didn’t have any experience here [in the UAE], so I didn’t say anything [to them]. I talked to the agency [in Bangladesh] on a mobile [to complain about the salary difference]. They said, “later you will make more money.”[20]

Workers also reported that contract-signing practices in Abu Dhabi remained flawed. Those interviewed described a range of contract practices. Some workers, including two workers Human Rights Watch met at the Guggenheim construction site, said employers had required them to sign a blank piece of paper. [21] Others said that they had been required to “quick-sign”—that employers had presented them with paperwork for immediate signature, giving them no time to examine the documents. [22] Many workers reported receiving contracts in English and Arabic with no translation or explanation in a language they could understand.

Even workers who received wages substantially lower than they had been promised, or told Human Rights Watch that they never would have accepted their employment offers had they known the real josb they would have to do, or the real terms of employment, had little recourse.

Shahin M. told Human Rights Watch that he had worked in the UAE for 28 months, and was still on his initial contract. He said:

In Bangladesh, I was a carpenter. I would make beds [and] cupboards; I rented a shop. It’s good in Bangladesh, but I wanted to get the chance [to do something better]. I thought it would be good and fun in the UAE, and the salary would be going [to help people at] home. I thought, if I go to the UAE I’ll collect some money, do something in my country. A lot of people had successes. Some of my neighbors told me to go to an agent. I paid the agent 1 lakh 75 thousand taka [US$2,347]. I saved some money, but a lot I took from a mortgage on my land….2.5 kani of farming land. I signed a contract in English. The agent said, “it’s carpenter work, [you will be] making 25,000 taka a month [about 1200 dirhams, or US$327].’ When I came, I saw that the salary was only 520 dirhams [US$142].[23]

In a letter to Human Rights Watch responding to our findings, TDIC did not specifically address the problem of contract substitution or the deception of workers prior to their departure from their home countries, even though such practices would appear to be contrary to the spirit of TDIC’s employment policy regarding the signing of contracts that serve as “confirmation of the terms of [each worker’s] employment.” The TDIC also failed to address the shortcomings of contract-signing procedures upon arrival identified by Human Rights Watch.

The Guggenheim also failed to adequately address problems of contract substitution and worker deception. Their response cited a TDIC auditing report that found that, out of 895 workers interviewed, “100 percent of the workers interviewed were holding their employment contracts. In all cases the actual conditions were found to be consistent with what was described in their agreements.”[24] However, these findings did not indicate whether workers had received accurate employment contracts prior to migration; by the time workers arrive in the UAE, having paid significant fees to migrate and with little ability to seek new employment, they effectively have little choice but to sign any contract employers provide them with in the UAE.

Despite remaining silent on this issue in their original promises, NYU acknowledged the need to ensure workers received full information about their employment prior to signing contracts. Their response to Human Rights Watch stated that “contracts should always be available in English and Arabic (as required by UAE law) and, in addition, there should be translators available to assist prior to a contract being signed. We are working with contractors to ensure this is the case moving forward.”[25]

The Louvre/AFM did not significantly address this issue in their response to us.


  • TDIC and EAA should require all contractors and subcontractors to obtain copies of contracts signed by workers in their home countries, in their native languages, attesting to the terms of their employment. If workers have already held jobs in the UAE and are recruited in-country, contractors should provide signed and notarized undertakings in workers’ native languages that clearly state the terms and conditions of their employment;
  • TDIC and EAA should monitor compliance by contractors and subcontractors through an independent and transparent process that includes interviews with workers in their native languages;
  • TDIC and EAA should penalize contractors that continue to work with agencies or sub-agencies that fail to provide workers with adequate information or mislead workers regarding conditions of employment. If the problems continue with one or more contractors, the relationships with them should be terminated; and
  • The Guggenheim, the Louvre/AFM, and NYU should seek regular updates on compliance and insist that their development partners enforce penalties for violations and terminate relationships with repeat violators.

Confiscation of Passports

Confiscation of workers’ passports by employers remains one of the most stubbornly entrenched practices we found on Saadiyat Island, despite the relative ease of monitoring this practice and the ready solution. Not only does Emirati jurisprudence prohibit employers from confiscating workers’ passports and other identification documents, but both TDIC’s employment policy and NYU/EAA’s labor commitments clearly state that workers shall retain possession of their personal documents.[26]

Allowing workers to retain physical possession of their passports means that contractors will need to change a decades-old practice that has remained standard, particularly for low-wage workers. To change this practice, developers and foreign cultural and academic institutions on Saadiyat Island must send strong and consistent messages to contractors that confiscation of passports will no longer be tolerated, and that they must depart from past norms. Such messaging includes effective inspection, and levying penalties against contractors who continue to retain documents.

Employers justify confiscation of workers’ passports in a variety of ways. For example employers say that they retain workers’ passports in order to protect their own financial investment in the worker, the time spent training them, etc. Or they sometimes assert that they retain the documents for safekeeping, saying that workers have no safe place in which to store passports. Some employers say that workers themselves prefer to have employers store their passports.

In reality, the confiscation of passports allows employers to keep workers from leaving their employment. The UAE sponsorship system, which holds sponsors liable for workers who “illegally” switch employers, also gives employers incentives to control the movement of their workers by confiscating their passports. Confiscation of passports is one of the main factors in creating conditions of forced labor: workers cannot flee the country even if they are abused because they cannot leave the country without possession of this crucial travel document. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has identified confiscation of passports as a key element in identifying situations of forced labor.[27]

International law and a UAE court ruling prohibit confiscation of passports as a violation of the right to freedom of movement. Without their passports, workers remain at the whim of their employers; in some cases workers have reported employers refusing to return their passports to allow them to attend relatives’ weddings or funerals in their home countries.[28] For example, Mansoor S., a landscaping worker on Saadiyat Island who had come from Bangladesh and worked in the UAE for three years, told Human Rights Watch, “I want to return home because of an emergency. My parents are sick. But [my company is] not letting me go.”[29]

At the time of Human Rights Watch research, despite institutional promises, only one of the 47 workers we interviewed had his passport in his possession. This worker, in a group interview with six others from the al-Jaber construction company, said his company was in the process of returning passports to other workers.[30] Other workers reported that while they did not have their passports, they could request them from their company. Workers described a variety of circumstances for passport retrieval. Some, including those employed by al-Futaim Carillion and working on the NYU site, said that they had a piece of paper that would enable e them to retrieve their passport at any time.[31] Others said they could retrieve their passport if needed. However, workers continued to report that companies maintained physical possession of their passports, and that retrieval depended upon company consent. Ali R. told Human Rights Watch, “My company keeps all the [workers]’ passports. I didn’t see my passport since landing [in the] UAE.” Naveen P., a worker for al-Nabouda Company, said, “The day we stepped on UAE land, they took our passports.” Ismail S., another Nabouda worker, said, “I don’t have my passport. I can get it, but there should be some reason.”

Even workers who signed agreements attesting that they had voluntarily handed over their passports seemed to feel they had no choice in the matter, and indicated that they would not ask for their passports unless they anticipated employer consent.[32] Shahid A., a driver employed by al-Futaim Carillion (responsible for building NYU’s campus), said, “there is no choice with the passport.” Muhsin R., another NYU worker, said “Before [when I worked] in Dubai, we were not supposed to take our passports. When we came to Saadiyat, we could take [them back], but the company will ask why.”

NYU responded to our findings by saying that workers’ documents would be returned to them. A March 27 letter to Human Rights Watch said that, “at this point, contractors should not be holding onto worker passports, even if they’re asked to do so,” and “this should be standard operating procedure in the near future.”[33]

In contrast, both TDIC and the Guggenheim responded to our findings regarding passport confiscation by pointing to the results of a study conducted by an outside monitoring firm employed by TDIC, which indicated that passport confiscation was not a problem on the island. According to the Guggenheim, “the report found that 90 percent of the workers interviewed (out of a total of 895 workers interviewed by the auditor) held their passports and the remaining 10 percent had visas in process.” Thus, the TDIC-employed auditor found contractors to be 100% compliant with company policy. TDIC’s letter further states that “11,538 workers have received their passports.” However, TDIC failed to clarify how its auditors reached this result.[34] If based on the “Site Assignment Agreement” that workers must sign before beginning work on any TDIC project, on release forms individual contractors require workers to sign before beginning employment on Saadiyat Island, or on company records or attestation, these results fail to prove that workers indeed have physical possession of their passports. As discussed below in the “Independent Monitoring” section of this report, results achieved by TDIC’s external auditor to date only underline the need for a transparent, independent, and credible monitoring program.


  • TDIC and EAA should immediately require all contractors, subcontractors, and labor suppliers to return workers’ passports to their physical possession;
  • TDIC and EAA should monitor compliance by contractors and subcontractors through an independent and transparent process that includes verification of where passports are held, such as through interviews with workers in their native languages. They should penalize contractors, subcontractors, or labor suppliers who are found to have confiscated passports, and should terminate relationships with those that continue to do so. The penalties should be severe enough to act as deterrents rather than a routine cost of business. The Guggenheim, the Louvre/AFM, and NYU should seek regular updates on compliance and insist that their development partners enforce penalties for violations and terminate relationships with repeat violators; and should
  • Ensure that all workers, including those housed off the island, have access to personal lockboxes in which to store documents including passports.

Independent Monitoring

Human Rights Watch has long recommended that in order to eliminate violations of workers’ rights, the agencies and institutions involved in developing Saadiyat Island should establish a mechanism to monitor and report publicly on labor practices within the operations of their respective branches, as well as those of any subcontractors and their affiliates (including those who provide construction and maintenance services). In the spring of 2011, both EAA and TDIC separately announced that they had appointed independent monitors to audit and report on compliance for their Saadiyat Island projects. The announcements marked a significant breakthrough and set a positive precedent for all future projects in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf.

Prior to announcing independent monitoring consultancies in the spring of 2011, the EAA and TDIC had undertaken some limited compliance checks. In 2010 auditors monitored labor conditions on Saadiyat Island, and TDIC and the EAA/NYU shared some of their auditors’ findings, including findings on passport confiscation and recruitment fees, in correspondence with Human Rights Watch (attached as an appendix to this report). With regard to recruitment fees, TDIC states that 15,354 workers had operated on Saadiyat Island as of December 2010, and that 13,696 —more than 90 percent—of these workers had signed TDIC’s Site Assignment Agreement, which declares that they have not paid recruitment fees to work on Saadiyat Island. [35] However, not only does this written agreement provide an ineffective method for monitoring whether workers have in fact paid recruitment fees, given the linguistic difficulties and flawed contract signing procedures workers described to Human Rights Watch, but the Site Assignment Agreement to TDIC’s employment policy (attached as an appendix) specifically states that workers may be denied access to TDIC sites in the event of their failure to comply with its conditions—including the condition that they have not paid recruitment fees. [36] Because workers who refuse to sign can be barred from working on the island, even those who have paid fees, or who do not have their passports (another condition required), they are unlikely to refuse signing. Auditing results based upon forms signed under possibly coercive circumstances, such as the Site Assignment Agreement, indicate little about the rights workers enjoy in practice. This flawed approach to auditing further confirms the need for a rigorous, independent monitoring program that includes worker interviews and a transparent methodology.

In March 201, NYU and the EAA appointed the UK firm Mott MacDonald to audit and report on compliance with the university's promises for workers involved in the construction of the NYU Saadiyat Island campus. Importantly, the university said that the resulting report would be made public, which it anticipated would happen by the end of 2011. To date, neither party has disclosed information about the terms of reference with the appointed monitor, the nature of monitoring methodology, or the measures to be taken if violations are found.[37]

In May 2011, TDIC appointed Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), an international auditing firm, to monitor working conditions on its projects. TDIC's announcement said that PwC will monitor and report publicly on whether workers' conditions meet the standards set forth in TDIC's employment policy and UAE labor law (but not additional standards consistent with international human rights law), including requirements that contractors pay workers' recruiting fees, provide health insurance, make on-time monthly wage payments into individual bank accounts, and allow workers to retain personal documents including passports.

Unlike the EAA, TDIC offered specific promises about the methodology that their appointed monitor would use, including random spot-checks and unsupervised worker interviews in workers’ own languages, as well as promising to publish "comprehensive" findings in annual public reports. This welcome level of transparency by TDIC did not extend to other elements raised by Human Rights Watch. To date, TDIC has not released the terms of reference it had established with PwC, a full description of the planned methodology and scope of monitoring, or any requirements or restrictions the monitor would adhere to in producing public reports. The absence of this information makes it difficult to assess whether the contract provides for fully independent monitoring (as opposed to an internal compliance program). For example it is not clear whether or not mechanisms are in place to ensure that: the monitor can operate with sufficient autonomy; conflicts of interest are avoided; pertinent issues will be examined; an appropriate methodology will be utilized; and a clear reporting system is in place that allows publication of monitoring results without interference or censorship from the hiring party.

On September 14, 2011, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the institutions and development partners requesting additional information on their monitoring programs, including terms of reference, scope of monitoring, and research methodologies. We received no additional information from TDIC, the EAA, or any of the institutions involved. An email from TDIC on October 19 responding to our request noted that the questions “raised in your letter will be addressed in the annual public independent monitoring report and according to international best practices.” In response to subsequent emails, TDIC said it did not have a release date yet for the monitoring report.

Once the independent monitors’ reports are available, and assuming they include at least basic data on the number of violators identified and the action taken in response, this information will provide a useful tool for assessing the seriousness of the effort to address worker conditions. In earlier discussions, Human Rights Watch has strongly encouraged TDIC and EAA to identify and punish contractors and subcontractors who fail to adhere to standards on workers’ rights. In our February 2011 letter, Human Rights Watch asked TDIC and EAA questions including:

1)      How many contractors or agents have been reported to your institution as violating the terms of your labor values policy?

2)      What measures has your institution taken or recommended to penalize violating contractors?

3)      How many recruitment agents have been reported to UAE authorities for violating UAE laws and charging workers on your project(s) recruitment fees? Have you identified any recruitment companies ineligible to provide workers for your projects?

In its March 2011 reply, TDIC said it has “always worked with an independent monitoring consultant, who provides regular reports on contractors’ performance.” It stated that “48 audits have been carried out on contractors operating on Saadiyat Island,” out of the “130 companies, including sub-contractors and labor supplies, [that had] operated on Saadiyat Island” as of December 2010. TDIC stated that penalties for non-compliance ranged from warning notices to contract termination, without specifying how many warning notices it had issued to contractors or how many contracts had been terminated.

The EAA, in its reply to Human Rights Watch, stated that its policy framework and implementation protocols include “a rigorous and ongoing internal compliance process, structured to identify one-off problems and systemic issues, which are subsequently addressed through the enforcement regime,” and that its enforcement regime is “designed to support the fulfillment of the Statement of Shared Labour Values”. However, the EAA did not elaborate further.

Looking ahead, one issue remaining to be addressed is whether and by what means institutions will act should TDIC or the EAA fail in their promise to enforce protections promised in the TDIC’s employment policy or in the Statement of Shared Values issued by NYU and EAA. According to these two documents, the commitments they contain are incorporated into contracts between TDIC or EAA and companies awarded contracts on the island, which provide means by which the contractors can be held responsible for upholding the standards. The cultural institutions involved in Saadiyat Island projects also describe them as shared commitments and should ensure that they, too, have a means to enforce the commitments they have secured from their development partners. In the event that developers fail to enforce their policy with contractors, these institutions should be sure that they have recourse through a contractual provision or other means to hold their respective developer accountable.

In a May 11 meeting between Human Rights Watch and representatives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture regarding the Louvre Abu Dhabi project, advisor Christine Gavini-Chevet stated that “If violations of social rights are huge [and] serious, then there will be no way to continue working with our Emirati partner.”[38] She added that, “We cannot cancel some parts of the contract … it is either all or nothing.”[39]


·         TDIC and the EAA should release comprehensive information about the terms of reference and methodology of the monitoring firms they have engaged, to demonstrate their respective firms’ independence in auditing and reporting;

·         They should also publish the results of the monitoring programs for their respective sites, as they have committed to do, and ensure that the reporting is comprehensive; and

·         TDIC and the EAA should set publicly-announced penalties for contractors who violate standards and put into effect clearly-defined remedies for workers whose rights are violated, including a direct promise to reimburse workers found to have paid recruiting fees if the developer fails to do so.

Case Study: Nurredin A., from Punjab Province, Pakistan

Nurredin A. is married, with two children. He works for a labor supply company supplying workers to Leighton al-Habtoor. Human Rights Watch met him on the Guggenheim construction site, where he was working to construct the pilings (sub-foundation) for the new museum. He lived at a labor camp in the Musaffa Industrial Area of Abu Dhabi, a large industrial neighborhood outside the city where thousands of workers are housed.[40]

I have been in Abu Dhabi for 14 months. I paid 150,000 Pakistani rupees [US$1,747 in recruitment fees to an agent] for a visa back home. At home, my agent said I would make 700 dirhams [US$191] in basic salary. The agent told me I would work in a processing plant, packaging bottled water, but when I arrived, I was made to sign a new contract, to work as a construction worker, at a lower salary of 525 dirhams [US$143]. [But] I have no experience building. I worked as a driver in Pakistan.

I didn’t complain [about the salary or the job] to the company because it won’t help to complain. Some of other people in my room are working for the same company. Nobody is happy.

[Now,] I earn the 525 dirhams [US$143] basic salary, plus overtime, as a crane helper. I am helping with the pilings and with the drilling machine. My job is to make the land strong. Sometimes I am making 720, 725 dirhams [US$195] per month, including my overtime pay.

It’s a very difficult job, long hours [and] hard work. In the morning, we start [from the labor camp] at 6 a.m., and start work at seven. We get a half-hour break, and return back here at 8 pm. There is no arrangement for cold water; we have to come to the central area. The boss will ask us, “why are you going to the water so many times?”, so we can’t go too often. Sometimes I have a headache, fever. It’s not that serious—I never went to the clinic. I think I was sick because of tiredness, and the heat.

[Soon after I started my job] we had a safety briefing—it was a one hour meeting. After that, they said, “you have to do this work, starting tomorrow.” During the safety training, they said to wear a helmet, have safety shoes, don’t throw trash everywhere.

My company pays a food allowance of 125 dirhams [US$34]. But we need a minimum of 200 dirhams [US$54] for even simple food. Because of inflation, even 300 [US$81] might not be enough for good food. We just eat dal, vegetables. We cannot eat meat, just two or three times per month. There are two kitchens for the whole company, [about] 50 or 60 employees. Our accommodation looks good, but we are living [in rooms with] between 14 and 16 people per room.

I still haven’t been able to make back the 150,000 rupees [US$1,747] I paid for my visa. That was my money that I earned [and saved]. I send 6,000 Pakistani rupees [US$ 70] each month for my family, maybe 7,000 [US$ 82].

Most of the people who work for my company have the same problems. If I knew that I had to do this work, I would never have come here for this.


[10] The sponsorship system requires workers to seek their sponsoring employer’s consent in order for them to legally change jobs, and only after two years of working for their sponsor. Employers must report workers who quit jobs without their permission to government authorities. Once a sponsor reports a worker, authorities cancel his or her residency permit and he or she becomes an illegal resident in the country. According to UAE law, “workers must have spent at least three years working for their sponsor (according to the date their labor card was issued) before becoming eligible to request the sponsor’s consent to transfer sponsorship, which they may do only once during their tenure in the country. Art.s 2, (4)(c), Ministerial Decision No.826 (2005), Regarding the Executive Regulations for Labor Sponsorship Transfer. There are no criteria prohibiting a sponsor from arbitrarily or unreasonably withholding consent or requiring the worker to pay a fee for transfer consent. The original sponsor’s consent is not required only if the new sponsor pays all the required fees and shows that the previous sponsor has not paid the worker for more than two months. See UAE Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, The Protection of the Rights of Workers in the United Arab Emirates: Annual Report 2007, p.13.

[11] In 2004, the Dubai Court of Cassation ruled in favor of an employee who sued his employer seeking a court order for the employer to release his passport. Dubai Court of Cassation, Appeal No.301-2003, February 28, 2004. In 2006, the director of legal affairs at the UAE Labor Ministry publicly stated that “retaining workers’ passports amounts to forcible work in violation of the…ILO Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labor, to which the UAE is a signatory.”

[12]Federal Law No.8 for 1980, On Regulation of Labor Relations, (accessed July 13, 2011), art. 18 states that “It is not permissible for any licensed labour agent or supplier to demand or accept from any worker whether before or after his recruitment, any commission or material reward in consideration for arranging such recruitment, nor may he obtain from him any expenses except as may be decided or approved by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.”

[13]Human Rights Watch interview with Kabir A., China Camp, Baniyas Area, Abu Dhabi, January 25, 2011. A pseudonym has been used in this and all cases, to protect workers’ identities.


[15]Human Rights Watch interview with Ali R., Saadiyat Island Cultural District, October 30, 2010.

[16]Human Rights Watch interview with Jamshid S, Saadiyat Island Cultural District, October 30, 2010.

[17] “Claims for extra costs incurred by any contractor for Compliance with the provisions of variations

to this Policy shall be for the account of the Contractor unless otherwise agreed to in advance by

the Client….Under no circumstances will the Client be liable for any extra costs incurred by Contractor arising

out of compliance with the provisions of this Policy.”EPP DIC EPP, Sections 55.1 and 55.2, July 29, 2010, available at: (accessed February 13, 2011).



[19]250 dirhams in basic salary translates to 3 dirhams, or 82 cents, per hour.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with Mizan R., Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, January 27, 2011.

[21]Human Rights Watch interviews with Gautam K. and Venkat C., ICAD camp, Musaffa Industrial Area, Abu Dhabi, November 2, 2011.

[22]For example, Ali R. said, “[My employer] just took a “quick sign”—they told me to come, sign, and go.” Human Rights Watch interview with Ali R., Saadiyat Island Cultural District, November 1, 2010.

[23]Human Rights Watch interview with Shahin M., Yas Island labor camp, Abu Dhabi, January 27, 2011.

[24]TDIC letter to Human Rights Watch, March 14, 2011, attached as an appendix to this report.

[25]NYU Letter to Human Rights Watch, March 27, 2011, attached as an appendix to this report.

[26]TDIC EPP Section 17 states:

·          “17.2 All Employees shall remain responsible for the safe keeping of their personal documents, including passports, drivers licenses, labour cards and health insurance cards.

·          17.3 No Contractor shall keep or retain the passport of any Employee, other than for the purposes of obtaining or renewing of a Residency Visa or cancellation of the Residency Visa upon termination of employment.” Available at: (accessed February 13, 2012).

The NYU/EAA Statement specifies that “employees will retain all of their own personal documents, including passports and drivers' licenses.” Available at: (accessed February 13, 2012).

[27]“It is not uncommon, in particular in the case of migrant workers, that the employer takes the worker’s identity documents and/or passport…and refuses to return them to the individual unless he or she continues to work for the employer.” ILO, Human Trafficking and Forced Labor Exploitation: Guidelines for Legislation and Law Enforcement: Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labor, 2005, Geneva, pp.17-21.

[28]Human Rights Watch interview with Premchand R., Saadiyat Island, October 30, 2010; interview with Mansoor S., Saadiyat Island, October 31, 2010.

[29]Human Rights Watch interview with Mansoor S., Saadiyat Island, October 31, 2010.

[30]Human Rights Watch interview with seven al-Jaber workers, Saadiyat Island, October 31, 2010.

[31]One worker showed his passport paper to Human Rights Watch. The paper stated that the signatory understands that he has a choice to retain his passport or turn it over to his employer for safekeeping. It provides that he may request it at any time and that the passport will be returned within 24 hours, excluding weekends and holidays. It further states that return cannot be guaranteed within this period, but that expedited return can be attempted in emergency circumstances. A photograph of the “NYU Abu Dhabi Passport Policy" is on file with Human Rights Watch.

[32]The practice of contractors allowing workers to voluntarily hand over their passports contravenes commitments made by the developers and the public institutions, which explicitly state that workers will retain their personal documents including passports.  

[33]NYU Letter to Human Rights Watch, March 27, 2011, attached as an appendix to this report.

[34]On March 15, after receiving TDIC’s letter, Human Rights Watch requested a meeting with TDIC CEO James Pringle seeking further information on TDIC’s efforts to monitor compliance with the EPP. On March 17, we received an email declining our request.

[35]TDIC letter to Human Rights Watch, March 14, 2011, attached as an appendix to this report.

[36] Annexure E, TDIC EPP, available at: (accessed February 13, 2012).

[37]NYU Letter to Human Rights Watch, March 27, 2011, attached as an appendix to this report.

[38]Meeting between Human Rights Watch and representatives of the French MoFAMoC AFM ect, May 11, 2011.


[40]Human Rights Watch interview with NurredinA., Musaffa Industrial Area, Abu Dhabi, November 2, 2010.