(Abu Dhabi) - Thousands of South Asian migrant workers building a US$27 billion island development in the United Arab Emirates face severe exploitation and abuse, in some cases amounting to forced labor, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Labor-supply agencies, construction companies, and repressive laws are responsible for the abuse.
The 80-page report, "‘The Island of Happiness': Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi," found that while the UAE government has moved to improve housing conditions and ensure the timely payment of wages in recent years, many labor abuses remain commonplace. International institutions planning to open branches on the island - including the Guggenheim, New York University (NYU), and the French Museum Agency (responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi) - should urgently obtain enforceable contractual guarantees that construction companies will protect workers' fundamental rights on their projects, Human Rights Watch said.
"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 Human Rights Watch. "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, the capital of the UAE, hopes to turn Saadiyat Island (the "island of happiness") into an international tourist destination. The low-lying island will have four museums and a performing arts center designed by world-renowned architectural firms - including Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Foster and Partners, and Gehry Partners - as well as a campus of New York University, golf courses, hotels, and expensive residences.
Workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other South Asian countries have been building the island's infrastructure since Abu Dhabi formed the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) to oversee the project in 2005. The museum is expected to open in 2013.
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, the Human Rights Watch report 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.
The UAE government and the authorities responsible for developing Saadiyat Island have failed to tackle the root causes of worker abuse: unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages, and a sponsorship system that gives an employer virtually complete power over his workers.
To obtain the visas needed to work in the UAE, nearly all workers Human Rights Watch interviewed on Saadiyat Island paid hefty fees to "labor-supply agencies" in their home countries that are contracted to supply workers to construction companies in the UAE. Because the agencies promised good terms of employment in the UAE, many workers sold their homes or land or borrowed money at high rates of interest to pay the agencies' fees. Upon arrival in the UAE, the indebted workers - many of whom are illiterate - are required to sign contracts with the construction companies on much worse terms than they had been promised back home. Workers have virtually no recourse against the agencies that cheated them with false promises of good wages and exploitative recruiting fees.
UAE laws prohibit agencies from charging workers such fees. The agencies are supposed to charge the companies, but the law is not enforced. Further, there are no penalties if companies, pursuing their own financial interests, knowingly work with agencies that make workers pay the fees.
Workers face the choice of quitting their jobs while still owing thousands of dollars for the unlawful recruiting fees, or continuing to work in exploitative conditions. Virtually all complained of low pay and poor-quality healthcare. Nor can workers effectively demand better pay or living conditions, because UAE laws do not protect the basic rights to form unions, bargain collectively, or strike. Instead, the UAE's "sponsorship" system gives employers nearly absolute control over the workers' lawful employment and presence in the country, with visas tied to individual employers. All workers said that when they arrived in the UAE, their employers had confiscated their passports. Employers can move to revoke the visa of a worker who quits, leading to deportation.
Some workers reported conditions that amount to forced labor: their employer threatened to fine them heavily if they tried to quit before they had worked for two years, which effectively confined them to the "island of happiness." Workers are generally not aware of their rights and are afraid of expressing grievances, and independent and effective monitoring is lacking.
"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 Whitson. "And they should insist on independent third-party monitoring of their projects, and impose meaningful penalties for violations."
Research on Saadiyat Island did show that authorities have taken some positive steps. Although workers' accommodations were still under construction when Human Rights Watch visited the island, they appeared to be relatively hygienic and not overcrowded. TDIC, the government-owned company overseeing the island's development, has sought contractual guarantees from construction companies that they will not confiscate workers' passports, use forced labor, or commit other abuses.
Human Rights Watch 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 (responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi project), 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.