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NYU pioneers construction workers' rights

Universiity sets labour standard for contractors working on new campus

Human rights watch director for the Middle East Sarah Leah Whitson.
Human rights watch director for the Middle East Sarah Leah Whitson.
Last year, TDIC spokesman Bassem Terkawi denied HRW?s claims of worker abuse on saadiyat.
Last year, TDIC spokesman Bassem Terkawi denied HRW?s claims of worker abuse on saadiyat.

Last week, New York University (NYU) revealed it will demand that all companies involved in the construction of its Middle East campus in Abu Dhabi follow strict guidelines dictating the fair and proper treatment of all labourers who work on the project.

These guidelines dictate how many hours per week labourers can work, how often they are paid, that overtime is paid and voluntary and that workers are entitled to paid holidays.

They also stipulate that employers cover or reimburse any costs accrued by employees in the recruitment process and that companies are prohibited from withholding personal documents, such as passports, from labourers.

As GCC countries, the UAE in particular, enjoyed a massive construction boom, many human rights groups highlighted the unethical treatment of site workers, hailing predominantly from South Asia. While authorities have made great strides to improve the conditions and contracts that hold these labourers, for many, these improvements still do not go far enough and, they argue, companies still hold far too much power over employees.

“Since we and our Abu Dhabi partners announced the creation of NYU Abu Dhabi in the autumn of 2007, we have made clear our shared commitment to protecting the rights of the men and women who will build and operate our campus,” said NYU spokesman Josh Taylor.

The degree-granting, liberal arts university campus has been designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects; work is set to begin at its Saadiyat Island site later this year, with a 2014 date penciled in for the university’s official opening.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) described NYU Abu Dhabi’s clampdown on contractors as “a significant step toward protecting migrant workers there” and called for neighbouring projects on Saadiyat Island, such as Middle Eastern branches of the world-famous Louvre and Guggenheim museums, to follow suit.

“NYU Abu Dhabi’s commitments should go a long way toward fixing the major sources of labor abuse,” said HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.

“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.”

The move by HRW is significant not only because it marks the first time that an institution of such a size and importance has imposed regulations regarding the treatment of labourers constructing its facilities, but also due to it coming on the back of a damning HRW report last year and subsequent pressure from student groups, faculty, and alumni to obtain contractual guarantees from contractors.

In May last year, HRW released an 80-page report entitled ‘The Island of Happiness’: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, which claimed that thousands of South Asian migrant workers building the US $27 billion island development were on the receiving end of severe exploitation and abuse bordering on forced labour.

HRW interviewed Saadiyat labourers. Almost all the workers interviewed had, in their homelands, paid large ‘finders’ fees’ to ‘labour supply agencies’ contracted to construction firms in the UAE, which most had borrowed against the promise of attractive remuneration and terms far better than offered in reality.

This practice still seems to be widespread in spite of the fact that UAE laws prohibit agencies from charging workers such fees. Agencies’ commissions should come from the contractors themselves rather than employees.

These problems are far from exclusive to the UAE. In November last year, more than 2000 construction workers employed by Al Hamad Contracting in Bahrain went on strike after their wages (around US $185 per month) went unpaid for the second time in the year.

A month earlier, workers for Handmade Interior and Contracting Services in the Kingdom had contacted Construction Week to complain that their employer had not paid them for almost four months and was refusing to release them from their contracts.

Authorities seem, on the surface at least, serious about changing the situation. Bahrain has recently introduced new labour laws which give migrant workers more rights, while officials from the UAE and Qatari labour ministries last year sat down with representatives from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, contractors from across the GCC, and Washington DC-based workers’ rights group The Solidarity Centre in an attempt to find a way of ensuring workers are correctly treated.

However, while NYU Abu Dhabi’s insistence could come to mark a watershed for the industry, HRW still holds
numerous concerns.

“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,” continued Whitson.

At the beginning of the year, Whitson made an appeal to regional countries: “Middle East governments should publicly set out their human rights agenda for 2010 and expect to be measured against their achievements.”

Governments should, of course, set the course but, as NYU Abu Dhabi has shown, clients, developers and even employees and residents can dictate the speed at which we reach the ethical treatment of those responsible for the buildings and infrastructure that we live in, work in, travel on and enjoy.

It’s the responsibility of the whole industry to ensure that no-one working in it is treated like a second-class citizen and to name and shame other companies that do not follow suit.

Labour Changes

July 2008
CW reveals that KSA, UAE and Qatar have no set minimum wage in place; Kuwait has a minimum wage for public sector workers, but not private; Oman’s applies only to Omani citizens, not foreign workers.

August 2008
Vincotte International’s Husaim Al Omani tells CW that worker health and safety is still almost unheard of in the KSA construction industry.

April 2009
UAE – Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announces government plans to impose new minimum standards across all labour camp accommodation in Dubai.

May 2009
A UAE Ministry of Labour-commissioned survey on living and working conditions within the industry reveals that 79% of workers think their situation is better than it was before arriving in the UAE; however, 71% of respondents say that current salary levels are poor.

August 2009
UAE – Hundreds of Dubai construction workers take to the street in protest of their low wages and the lack of overtime.

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Construction Week - Issue 749
Sep 15, 2019