UAE Migrant Workers’ Rights Draw Focus
Scale model of Saadiyat Island. - Picture: Wikimedia Commons
By Mahmoud Awadi
ABU DHABI (IDN) - Human Rights Watch, deeply concerned about the alleged abuse of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has spotted some positive signs on the horizon. The New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi has agreed to insist with all companies building its campus to respect the rights of workers.
NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts campus established by a major U.S. research university purported to prepare “the next generation of global leaders” by adopting “a new approach to higher education,” NYU president John Sexton said.
This is undoubtedly a “significant step”, said Human Rights Watch (HRW), adding that “all other businesses and institutions with projects in the country, including the Louvre and Guggenheim, should follow suit and incorporate similar contractual safeguards.”
NYU Abu Dhabi opened the doors to its Downtown Campus on December 7, 2009. The school’s first class of students will arrive in August 2010. The Campus will house all major academic and cultural activities for NYU Abu Dhabi during its inaugural years, until construction of the residential campus on Saadiyat Island (The Island of Happiness) is completed in 2014. Construction of the Saadiyat campus is expected to begin next year.
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, seeks to convert the island into an international tourist destination at a cost of 27 billion U.S. dollars.
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 the NYU campus, golf courses, hotels, and expensive residences.
Other international institutions planning to open branches on the island include the British Museum, the Guggenheim, and the French Museum Agency responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
With an inaugural class slated for August, NYU is working hard to recruit students from around the world, with information sessions scheduled over the coming months in various countries, including Peru, Russia, Lebanon, and Costa Rica. Incoming students will initially attend a temporary campus in Abu Dhabi until the university completes construction of its permanent home on Saadiyat Island.
The NYU Abu Dhabi’s announcement comes after months of widespread calls from student groups, faculty, and alumni, to obtain contractual guarantees from its UAE development partners.
The New York University Abu Dhabi's website said February 3, 2010 that NYU and its partner, the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi, will require all companies involved in building and operating the NYU Abu Dhabi campus to reimburse workers for any recruiting or other employment-related fees that they are found to have paid.
Indebtedness for such fees remains the primary factor in creating conditions of forced labor. The new terms also bar companies from confiscating worker passports, and require them to provide 30 days of annual leave, health insurance, and premium rates for overtime work, among other benefits.
"NYU Abu Dhabi's commitments should go a long way toward fixing the major sources of labor abuse," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East director. "These provisions set a new minimum standard so that companies will no longer be able to treat worker abuse as a necessary part of doing business in the UAE."
A recent HRW report documented 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.
Human Rights Watch said it is concerned, however, about the absence of clear provisions for independent, third-party monitoring of compliance by employers or for enforcement. It is unclear what legal recourse NYU Abu Dhabi has in the event of a breach by a contractor employing workers on its project, with which it will have no direct contractual relationship.
Nor is it clear what penalties, if any, will be imposed on contractors that violate the terms. Other shortcomings include the absence of protections for workers to bargain collectively and to strike, and the lack of any guaranteed minimum wage.
"Without a contractual agreement between NYU and its Abu Dhabi partner ensuring independent, third-party monitoring of labor conditions, there will be no way to know if employers are complying," Whitson said. "And without clear penalties, such as treble damages and termination of the contract, these requirements will have no teeth."
The May 2009 Human Rights Watch report, ‘The Island of Happiness': Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi,’ documented the severe exploitation and abuse of South Asian migrant workers constructing the infrastructure for the university's permanent campus on Saadiyat Island (the "island of happiness"). I
In its report, HRW called on NYU and other international institutions to insist on concrete contractual commitments from all companies involved in constructing the campus.
According to HRW, labor conditions in the UAE, including Saadiyat Island, remain a serious problem. Migrant workers interviewed by HRW in a return visit to the island in January 2010 said, consistent with the earlier findings, that they had paid about 2,000 U.S. dollars each in recruitment fees and that their employers had confiscated their passports.
Abdul Ghafar Hussein, Chairman of UAE Human Rights Association, however said allegations that workers in the UAE were mistreated were not true but baseless and that he had explicitly conveyed this to representatives of some international organisations.
Citing positive reaction from UAE officials, Hussein said: ''UAE citizens -- by common sense -- don't like to see any harm befall on any body living among them".
He pointed out that not all what HRW had stated about workforce was accurate and that the representative it sent in the past heard only from small number of workers.
He called on HRW to listen to a wide range of points of view from workers and employers too to solicit their observations in dealing with workers. This is what justice entails at least.
According to the UAE news agency WAM, Hussein described as ''satisfactory'' the current situation of workers in the UAE as labour legislations and measures protecting workers' rights had seen marked development. He said he personally didn't see any shortcoming from the state in upholding these rights. Individual cases between employers and employees are common and can take place anywhere.
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.
Challenging HRW, WAM said: “Towards regulating and protecting workers from exploitation starting from the phase of importing them from their homelands, the UAE signed a series of bilateral Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) in workforce with a number of sisterly and friendly countries like India, Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia for protecting workers' rights, regulating their entry into the UAE and raising their awareness about the local laws as well as their rights and duties stated in the labour contract.
The UAE was also working to create a regional framework for cooperation in management of cycle of temporary contractual workers between the Asian labour sending countries, and labour receiving countries, an initiative which paved the way for the holding of the Ministerial Consultation on Overseas Employment and Contractual Labour for Countries of Origin and Destination in Asia (Abu Dhabi Dialogue) in January 2008, WAM reported.
“In a quality move in the area of workers' rights, the UAE enforced in April 2007 a new unified contract to regulate the rights and duties of domestic workers,” the news agency stated. “The contract regulates the nature of work, term of contract, salary and rest periods and provides for other worker's rights like the healthcare in line with existing health system in the country.”
In an extensive dispatch, WAM reported January 26 that the diplomatic corps had lauded United Arab Emirates “for its role in protecting rights of the migrant workers offering them the best available milieu and opportunities to work in a most elegant manner”.
The news agency interviewed Egyptian ambassador Tamer Mansour, Jordanian ambassador Jamal Hamed Al Shamayla, Bangladesh ambassador Mohammed Nazimul Qunain, Indian Ambassador Talmeez Ahmed, and the Charge d' Affaires of Sri Lanka Madukande Asoka Girihagama.
There are approximately 238,000 Sri Lankans working in the UAE, according to latest official figures, WAM said.
Girihagama commended the latest initiatives launched by the UAE Ministry of Labour like the Wages Protection System (WPS), an initiative to safeguard workers' wage payments via transfers through financial institutions. The Ministry has also launched 'My Salary' service as part of its efforts to allow firms deliver monthly payments to workers on time.
The Sri Lankan Charge d' Affaires termed these measures as ''satisfactory'' and steps on the right direction. The Indian ambassador Talmeez Ahmed and his colleagues praised the commitment shown by UAE officials towards the welfare of foreign workers.
But Human Rights Watch maintains that 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 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 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.
Subsequently, HRW argues. 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. 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 interviewed by HRW 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. (IDN-InDepthNews/07.02.2010)
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