Samer Muscati / AP

Human Rights Watch presses for labor reform in UAE

The rights group urges NYU, the Guggenheim and Louvre to ensure laborers working on their UAE sites are treated fairly

The rights of laborers on Sadiyaat Island in the United Arab Emirates have not improved six years after Human Rights Watch (HRW) first reported on allegations of abuse suffered by workers building a campus for New York University, as well as facilities that will house Louvre and Guggenheim branches there.

Strongly rejected by Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development Investment Company, Tuesday's report details incidents including confiscation of passports, withheld wages and filthy, cramped living conditions for the roughly 1,000 men and women who work on Saadiyat (Happiness) Island. The report says that hundreds have been deported without compensation for protesting their treatment.

"What we’re asking for, first and foremost, and a very easy ask, is for NYU, the Louvre and Guggenheim to demonstrate their commitment to this issue and their commitment to worker rights is to compensate the workers who are arbitrarily deported – pure and simple. They can do that right away," said Nicholas McGeehan, HRW’s Middle East researcher, calling the sum of money required to do so "a drop in the ocean."

After the group published reports on the labor issues on Saadiyat in 2009 and 2012, authorities changed laws and brought in outside monitors. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has been monitoring the Louvre and Guggenheim sites, and consultant Mott MacDonald was charged with monitoring the NYU site.

The real question to NYU, Guggenheim, the Louvre is: How many more reports and exposes is your reputation going to weather?

Sarah Leah Whitson

Human Rights Watch MENA Executive Director

Although the PwC report on labor at the museum sites essentially confirms HRW’s findings, "The enforcement mechanisms are very clearly deficient," McGeehan said.  

In fact, "the code of conduct which monitors NYU doesn’t provide for any financial penalties," he added.

"Now, in a construction sector that is highly problematic and has been characterized by exploitation for years, the notion that you can somehow protect workers if you don’t have sanctions in place is utterly fanciful," McGeehan said.

Among the issues HRW found were Bangladeshi laborers working on the site of the NYU’s Saadiyat campus who said they were paid $190 a month, less than half of what they said the recruitment agency back home promised them.

Living two hours away in Abu Dhabi city, 27 men hired to paint the campus were housed in an insect-infested, two-room apartment, where the fire exit was locked.

Sharing the responsibility

While the workforce on Saadiyat represents a small portion of the 5 million migrant workers in the UAE, "The real question to NYU, Guggenheim, the Louvre is: How many more reports and exposes is your reputation going to weather?" said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s executive director for Middle East and North Africa.

In response to the report, NYU spokesman John Beckman sent a statement via e-mail to Al Jazeera.

"Since the earliest days of NYU Abu Dhabi, the safety and well being of both those who built and those who help to operate our campus has been a top institutional priority, and NYU and our partners take seriously any allegations of non-compliance with the university’s labor standards," read the statement, in part.

Beckman also mentioned that Nardello & Co, an international investigations firm, is expected to submit a "comprehensive review" of the situation in the spring.

He did not respond to questions about whether the university plans to compensate deported workers or guarantee worker protections in the future.

Al Jazeera contacted the Guggenheim foundation for comment, and was told that construction on the site had not yet begun, although spokeswoman Tina Vaz said that work on the foundation and pilings was completed in 2011.

The statement acknowledged the HRW report, and said the foundation sought to "implement meaningful and verifiable actions," adding, "significant and documented progress has been made by TDIC in a number of areas, including dedicated workers’ accommodations, access to medical coverage and retention of passports." TDIC, or Tourism Development and Investment Company, is a developer wholly owned by the government of Abu Dhabi.

Reform or public relations?

The bulk of the recommendations made by the report are aimed at the the UAE and its state agencies – for more transparency, more accountability, the enforcement of laws and greater sanctions against those who violate them.

"One of the frustrating aspects of this is the extent to which UAE authorities…have really engaged on this issue as a public relations problem as opposed to a reform problem," said Whitson.

HRW acknowledges that "positive steps" have been made over the past six years – legislative reforms amending the Gulf nation’s kafala sponsorship system and rules intended for holding domestically based recruitment agencies accountable for poor practices.

The Ministry of Labor has also increased the number of inspectors and inspections, performing nearly 1,200 inspections per day.

But progress has been slow, and Whitson described the UAE’s mode of engagement as "kicking and screaming every step of the way."

The TDIC issued a statement rejecting the findings of the report, saying that it holds "unfounded conclusions, which are outdated and based on unknown methodologies, even as TDIC has been transparent with its efforts."

An additional challenge has been the fact that engagement with authorites is a major issue. McGeehan has been blacklisted from entering the UAE, and Whitson was denied entry in to the country, owing to, the rights group believes, its work on the UAE crackdown on "domestic dissent" rather that labor issues.

"It was just touching the nerve of documenting the country’s political reformers and political activists, which is a domestic issue which was a third rail for the Emiratis," said Whitson.

The UAE is the only Gulf Arab country that has formally blacklisted any HRW researchers. The rights group was recently in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and in Qatar, where it issued a critical report on the slow rate of labor reforms. 

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