Migrant workers building a $27-billion “Island of Happiness” in the United Arab Emirates are being abused and exploited, a human rights watchdog revealed on Tuesday. More than 2,000 workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other South Asian countries have been building Saadiyat Island’s infrastructure since Abu Dhabi formed the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) to oversee the project in 2005.”We are very concerned about the working conditions on the island,” Jean-Marie Fardeau, director of the Paris office of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The Media Line.
When complete, the 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 university campus, golf courses, hotels, and luxury homes.
The Guggenheim Museum, New York University and the Louvre Abu Dhabi will all have flagship buildings in the massive construction project.
Later this month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is scheduled to lay the foundation stone of the Louvre Abu Dhabi on the island. The museum is expected to open in 2013.
An 80-page report from HRW, “‘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.
“The Guggenheim and Le Louvre will soon start building and we wanted to alert the international community, the French government, the U.S. authorities and the emirate authorities about the fact that so far the working conditions on the island have not been improved and… migrant workers are being exploited by construction companies in this country where you have three and half million migrant workers,” Fardeau said.
HRW called for international institutions to “protect workers’ fundamental rights on their projects.
“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 HRW.
“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,” she said.
TDIC blasted the report in a statement, accusing HRW of “misleading assertions and false assumptions due to HRW’s questionable methodology and flawed research.”
The statement said the company had taken action “to protect the rights and welfare of the workers on all TDIC developments, including Saadiyat Island.”
The company said that work had not yet begun on the NYU campus, Louvre or Guggenheim and that the first building was for the laborers themselves, which would be “one of the most advanced accommodation and living facilities for construction workers in the Middle East, with the first 5,000 residents to be welcomed in July 2009.”
TDIC said it had already addressed many of the abuses alleged in the report and informed HRW of those developments.
The 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,” the rights watchdog charged.
To obtain the visas needed to work in the UAE, nearly all workers HRW 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 fees. But on 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.
HRW said the workers had virtually no recourse against the agencies that cheated them with false promises of good wages and exploitative recruiting fees.
The report said that UAE laws prohibited 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,” the report said.
“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,” the report said.