TDIC rejects Human Rights Watch Saadiyat findings

Human Rights Watch group says Saadiyat labour abuse continues; TDIC says report methodology outdated and conclusions unfounded

The Louvre museum project, Abu Dhabi. Image: Getty
The Louvre museum project, Abu Dhabi. Image: Getty

Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) has responded strongly to a report published by the New York-based Human Rights Watch group which criticises foreign labour employment practices on Saadiyat Island.

The 83-page HRW report states that nearly five years after the group first published findings of what it termed 'systematic human rights violations' of migrant workers employed on the enormous cultural project in Abu Dhabi, “there remain serious concerns about violations of workers’ rights on the island.”

The TDIC, however, rejects the claims, saying that the HRW report had reached “unfounded conclusions, which are outdated and based on unknown methodologies even as TDIC has been transparent in its efforts.”

Officials acted swiftly after the initial report was published in 2009. The Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority (EAA) and the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), instituted guidelines and contractual requirements for contractors and subcontractors to curb labour abuses, and appointed third-party compliance monitors.

The EAA drew up what it called the ‘The 14 Points,’ based on a ‘Statement of Labour Values,’ which required contractors to adhere to more rights-protective standards on recruitment fees, passport confiscation, working hours, wage payment, and worker accommodations, among others issues. It appointed engineering, management, and development consultant Mott McDonald to monitor contractor compliance. TDIC also developed its ‘Employment Practice Policy’ (EPP), which applies to all contractors and subcontractors on projects under the TDIC’s purview, requiring them to adhere to standards on many of the same issues covered by “The 14 Points.” The TDIC appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) as its compliance monitor. The UAE government, among other measures, also made revisions to the laws and regulations regulating the kafala system, which ties workers’ visas to particular employers and severely restricts their right to change employers.

Inspections by the Ministry of Labour were also carried out at a more regular interval: 77,197 routine inspections in the fourth quarter of 2012, an average of 1187 routine inspections per day, the latest HRW report details.

The TDIC said, “TDIC is the primary developer for Saadiyat and is constructing a cultural district comprising the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum. In building such landmark projects, TDIC has endeavoured to ensure that working conditions and practices on Saadiyat meet international standards and comply with UAE labour law."

"To ensure compliance with the EPP, TDIC has retained international auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to independently monitor the works on Saadiyat throughout the year and release its findings to the public at the end of every year. These findings have helped TDIC spot issues and make modifications where needed. We have also taken action whenever there is a credible complaint, including evicting contractors who have flouted the Employment Practice Policy (EPP).”

Despite these positive steps, however, the Human Rights Watch report states, “that some of the same abuses we documented in our previous reports continue.

“UAE government authorities prevented us from conducting research openly or from conducting interviews at the Saadiyat Island site, and as a result, we cannot say how widespread the abuses continue to be. Nonetheless, we were able to make contact with seven groups of workers who had recently been deported or worked on the site and lived elsewhere in the UAE—in the Mussafah industrial zone in Abu Dhabi or in Jebel Ali, south of Dubai. Workers employed on Saadiyat Island in 2013 and 2014 told us of a range of abuses.

“Some said their employers failed to pay their wages for months at a time, and that they faced arrest and summary deportation when they went on strike. Some said their employers had failed to renew work permits and residence visas and refused to pay the end-ofservice benefits to which they were entitled, leaving them penniless and vulnerable to arrest and deportation. All of the workers said that employers continue to retain their passports and fail to reimburse the recruitment fees they had to pay to secure employment on the island. Some Saadiyat workers continue to be housed in cramped and unsanitary housing. Despite the fact that these abuses violate UAE laws and the TDIC and EAA guidelines, workers said they were unable to effectively access grievance mechanisms.”

The TDIC countered with findings from a monitoring report filed by PwC in December 2014, based on direct interviews with 1050 workers, that statesd that all workers had access to their passport, that there was a ‘high standard of accommodation’ including food, cleaning and daily laundry service; medical insurance was provided for 99% or workers, and that there was a well-established mechanism in place for workers to lodge complaints.

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

“TDIC is committed to making sure that high standards of worker welfare continue to be implemented on all of its work sites.”



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