Feb 10, 2015 5:38 AM

Rights group: Abuse at Abu Dhabi museum site despite reforms

The Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Reforms enacted in the United Arab Emirates have not done enough to end the exploitation of migrant workers building a high-profile cultural complex that includes branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums, a leading human rights group said Tuesday in a report that was immediately rejected by the government-backed developer.

In an 82-page report, Human Rights Watch acknowledged that Emirati authorities have taken "positive steps" to improve working conditions for the mainly South Asian workers on the Saadiyat Island project in the federation's capital, Abu Dhabi.

But it said some workers involved in the project still face abuses it documented in two previous reports, including employers confiscating workers' passports, withholding pay and benefits, and housing workers in poor accommodations. Those who go on strike to protest their conditions face deportation, it noted.

"The progress in respecting workers' rights on Saadiyat Island risks being tossed out the window if workers know they can't protest when things go wrong," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the rights group's regional director. "New laws and codes of conduct are only as good as their enforcement."

The report is the latest by international rights groups to cast a spotlight on labor practices in the Gulf Arab region. Blessed with immense oil wealth but relatively small local populations, the Emirates and other Gulf states rely on millions of temporary migrant laborers to raise their skyscrapers, staff shopping malls, drive taxis, and clean homes and hotels.

Human Rights Watch estimates there are more than 5 million low-paid migrant workers in the Emirates alone.

The government-backed Tourism Development and Investment Company, which is leading the Saadiyat Island project, rejected the report's "unfounded conclusions," calling them "outdated and based on unknown methodologies."

It previously set up an "Employment Practices Policy" that sets out standards for companies involved in its projects and has built a facility that is supposed to house employees for all of its contractors and subcontractors.

It also has hired auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to monitor work on the site, and says it has taken action "whenever there is a credible complaint," including removing companies violating its policies.

"TDIC has always been open to engaging in a constructive dialogue around the employment of expatriate labor around the world. TDIC will continue to work closely with its partners and make enhancements where they can be done within its capacity," it said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch said it was unable to determine the extent of the abuses because Emirati authorities blocked it from researching the issue openly and prevented it from interviewing workers on the job site.

The group interviewed 113 current and former laborers who had worked on the project for seven different contractors or subcontractors during 2013 and 2014, according to the report. Some said they were not paid salaries for months on end, faced arrest and deportation for striking, and were housed in "cramped and unsanitary housing."

All of those interviewed said employers held their passports and did not reimburse them for job recruiting fees they paid to work on the project.

The group urged institutions involved in the project, which also includes a satellite campus of New York University, to make their ongoing participation dependent on tougher enforcement of worker protections and compensation to affected workers.


Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck .


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