By Shane McGinley
Improvements by UAE developers praised, but need to do more to curtail abuses
The UAE has been commended for improvements to conditions for foreign labourers working on the construction of the US$27bn Saadiyat Island project, but have been urged to do more by a US-based human rights organisation.
“Emirati developers and their international partners have stepped up to the plate on Saadiyat Island to start to protect workers, but they will need to do more to curtail the abuses,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) said as part of an 85-page progress report on conditions for workers at Saadiyat Island.
HRW had previously accused Abu Dhabi authorities of turning a blind eye to the conditions workers, who mainly come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other South Asian countries.
In its latest report, HRW said it “found notable improvements since its first report on the subject in 2009.” Some of the improvements included guarantees put in place to make sure workers got regular payment of wages, rest breaks and days off and employer-paid medical insurance.
Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) last year said it would appoint a new company to monitor the welfare of construction workers on Saadiyat Island after it was reported that 130 artists, including prominent names in the Arab art world, pledged to boycott the US$800m Guggenheim museum being built on the island unless the welfare of foreign labourers improves.
The Frank Gehry-designed museum is at the heart of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island development, currently home to more than 10,000 labourers.
However, HRW called on the results of these monitors to be made public. TDIC and Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority (EAA) have not yet reported publicly on any findings by the new monitors they have appointed or any steps taken in response to their findings, HRW said in the report.
“By acknowledging the need for independent monitoring, Saadiyat developers have raised the bar for other development projects in the region,” Whitson said. “But monitoring alone is not enough -TDIC and EAA need to remain vigilant by punishing offending contractors and disclosing these penalties publicly.”
The report found that “the scale of the problems Human Rights Watch documented is not as bad as in 2009,” but it observed that “the continuation of poor practices in a number of cases reflects ongoing gaps in protection.”
Some of the issues which still occurred was the confiscating of workers’ passports, confusing employment contracts and workers being forced to endure high debts as a result of having to pay recruitment fees.
“Despite pledges by the institutions to address recruitment fees and UAE laws that prohibit agencies from charging them, almost all of the workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported paying between US$900 and US$3,350 to agents in their home countries when seeking employment in the UAE,” the report said.
“With meager incomes and few assets, workers often took out loans at high monthly interest rates to pay these fees, which they then spend months or years working to pay back,” it added.
The US$27bn project is set to have local branches of New York University and the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums, among other prominent projects and HRW has called on these organisations to make sure workers involved in the construction of their buildings are paid in full and any contractors who abuse them face punishment.