Counting the human cost

Claims of poor worker treatment continue to hound Saadiyat Island developer TDIC, but is criticism justified, and what is being done to improve conditions?

The first of three museums being built on Saadiyat island will complete this year.
The first of three museums being built on Saadiyat island will complete this year.

The Human Rights Watch organisation’s 2015 update into its findings over alleged abuses of workers’ rights on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi cast a light into darkened corners of business practices the western world has long considered abandoned.

The group first published a highly critical report into what it claimed were systematic human rights violations of migrant workers on Saadiyat Island in 2009. Five years on, it has just released an update [Migrant workers’ rights on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, 2015 progress report] in which it claims many problems still prevail.

It states that of the contractors working on the island, “some employers continue to withhold wages and benefits from workers, fail to reimburse recruiting fees, confiscate worker passports, and house workers in substandard accommodations”.

It also claims that Saadiyat workers who have gone on strike in protest at low pay have subsequently been deported after employers contacted the police.

The New York-based group added that while UAE authorities had recently introduced significant reforms to the Emirati labour law, a “failure to rigorously investigate violations and enforce the new laws are contributing to continuing violation of workers’ rights”.

The group’s claims were met with a terse response from Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the developer behind the enormous cultural district at the island on the edge of Abu Dhabi’s city centre.

It wholly rejected Human Rights Watch’s findings, stating that its conclusions were “outdated and based on unknown methodologies”.

It also said that it has been “transparent in its efforts” to address concerns raised by the group’s original 2009 report.

Saadiyat Island is a considerable project with incredible international importance. It will host branches of the Louvre, currently under construction and due to complete this year, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, the Zayed National Museum and a New York University campus.

Understandably, any criticism levelled at the project has an impact globally and reflects on its relationships with its business partners. Evidence of that was apparent in 2011 when international artists issued a call to action to boycott the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum project.

It’s an issue that TDIC has not sat still on. In its rebuttal statement, the developer said: “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.

“We have established a comprehensive Employment Practices Policy (EPP) outlining the standards required from the companies working on our projects, and laying out penalties for those found to be in breach of any aspect. TDIC has also established the Saadiyat Accommodation Village, a housing facility in which all TDIC contractors and subcontractors must be housed.”

It added that several groups – including British MPs, museum partners and senior foreign diplomats – had toured Saadiyat’s construction sites and worker housing, adding that they “have praised both the quality of the conditions and the standard provided”.

“The efforts and processes have led many to single out TDIC as a leader that has set a high benchmark for the region’s construction industry and serves as a model for improving labour conditions in the region.”

There are currently seven main contractors and 46 subcontractors working on projects on Saadiyat Island. During the December 2013-November 2014 period, a monthly average of 7,297 workers were employed on site, with 51% from India, 27% from Pakistan, 20% from Bangladesh and 2% from Nepal.

TDIC does not directly employ labourers and insists that contractors who do adhere to its EPP, as well as cooperate with independent compliance monitor Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC). PwC has, for the past three years, issued publicly-available reports into its findings. These documents are available freely on TDIC’s website – filed under Worker Welfare.

In its reply to the 2015 HRW update, the developer said PwC’s annual reports had “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 EPP.”

The most controversial issue is that of recruitment fees. EPP rules prohibit the practice, as does Emirati labour law, but it doesn’t stop it from happening in supply countries where labourers are desperate for paid work. TDIC has taken steps to stamp out the practice at its projects – but it remains a wider concern for the GCC as a whole.

Tristan Forster, founder and chairman of ethical recruitment and staff sourcing company FSI Worldwide, said it was not uncommon for labourers, desperate to support their families, to have to stump up considerable fees (between $1000-3000 in many cases) to simply register for overseas work.

Those unable to afford the fees were forced into loan arrangements with recruitment agencies in their home countries, saddled with incredible interest rates (around 40%) which made repayment of the debt an incredibly long and damaging process.

Around 90% of low-skilled migrant workers recruited from source countries in the developing world land in GCC countries with debts accrued through the recruitment process that includes relocation costs and visas. Forster acknowledges the HRW report’s findings that labourers can earn as little as $190 a month – a little over $1 per hour, based on a 40-hour week. Many face years of debt repayments before they’re able to clear a profit.

“The ILO (International Labour Organisation) estimates that there are 21m people globally in forced labour but the actual number is much higher if one includes the large numbers of workers suffering under debt bondage.

The bondage of workers by source country recruitment agencies is a pernicious business model. It is so widespread that many potential migrants seem to view it with a sense of resignation and an attitude that if you want to work overseas, you have to pay for the privilege.” Forster said.

He said that in many cases, employees were lied to about the amount they would be paid, and that employment contracts offered at sign-up were not the same as those presented once the worker had arrived at his destination country. By then, it was simply too late to back out of the commitment.

“Overseas recruitment agencies in these [source] countries are incredibly powerful, and everyone is feeding off the desperation of the workers to find opportunities abroad – from the recruitment agencies and labour officials, to the airport immigration officers.

It’s an unpleasant business model that a considerable number of people are locked into. To achieve real change, labour laws need to be even more explicit and to be robustly enforced.
Employers need to be held accountable for the actions of their agents and suppliers.”

He continued: “In order to ensure that recruitment and mobilisation costs are not covered by the workers, employers need to pay for mobilisation fees including flights and visas, but also to pay reasonable recruitment fees.

If this is robustly enforced by government and business then this will create a level playing field in the competitive tender process so that ethical companies are not disadvantaged. This, combined with a defined minimum wage for workers, would make a huge difference.

Forster said: “The issue presents a tremendous opportunity for the UAE to show even greater regional and global leadership in creating a market for ethical recruitment and ending debt bondage”. Forster said that “TDIC should be given credit for establishing the monitoring programme on Saadiyat Island”.

“As far as I know it is still the only one of its kind in the construction sector. I would encourage TDIC and the wider industry to extend the initiative beyond Saadiyat Island to cover all projects in the UAE. I would also encourage a stronger focus on what I believe workers feel is the most important issue ? achieving ethical recruitment.

“If you want it in a soundbite, then ‘End Debt Bondage’ is my message. End this fundamental issue of taking money off workers. Pay them what they are owed and allow them to send that money back to their families who so desperately need it.”

EPP rules expressly forbid recruitment fees being levied against workers – and PwC has taken steps against the practice. In its December 2014 report, PwC said 88% of workers stated that they had paid recruitment fees and 89% said that they had paid relocation costs. They were unable to provide evidence of the payments, and PwC said full resolution of the issue was beyond “TDIC’s control and requires action outside of the UAE”.

It did, however, discover that 261 workers hired by an unnamed contractor had been charged fees by a recruitment agency, and that these fees would be reimbursed after a six-month period. PwC said workers were either not reimbursed, or not fully reimbursed, so the contractor was issued an enforcement notice to rectify the problem. The company was also fined for this and other EPP breaches.

PwC also said that all labourers on site had access to their passports and while many had signed them over to their employers for safekeeping, they were able to claim them at any stage.

Concerns over labour accommodation were also addressed in mid-2014. In April, a contractor handed over a petition signed by 2,000 workers which listed complaints over the standard of accommodation and services available. By June, TDIC had terminated a contract with its operator and appointed a new one. Since then, labourers have had better living arrangements, door-to-door laundry services, daily housekeeping of workers’ bedrooms, a new kitchen facility and a plan for new recreational facilities.

In its rebuttal statement the TDIC said it had “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.”

For its part, the Guggenheim Foundation said it had been encouraged by TDIC’s work in enforceable, measurable protections for workers’ rights which could “serve as a regional model for the construction industry”.

“Areas for improvement remain. The complex issue of recruitment, in particular, will require action on several fronts, including international cooperation among countries of both origin and destination.”

A joint statement issued by the Louvre museum and Agence France Muséums added, “Since the beginning of the project, the French side recognises the key role of the workers in the construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The dialogue with the Emirati side remains demanding and constructive in order to continue moving this policy forward in favour of workers and to make the Louvre Abu Dhabi a reference in the field.”

- $1 Amount, in US dollars, anecdotal evidence suggests a labourer earns per hour
- 7,297 Average monthly number of workers employed on Saadiyat Island in 2014

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