In a conference room in downtown Abu Dhabi, the scene resembled a circus: reporters yelling in Arabic, tempers stirred to a fever pitch as Human Rights Watch officials released a report on what the organization called the "abuse and exploitation" of low-wage workers.
Tuesday's report focused on Saadiyat Island, where institutions such as New York University, the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums plan to build their first Middle East outposts. Human Rights Watch singled out these institutions and the prestigious architects working on the projects, including Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Zaha Hadid.
As they were heckled by the crowd, Human Rights Watch representatives called out Abu Dhabi for allowing the mistreatment of laborers, alleging wage withholding and confiscated passports, and slammed state policies like the sponsorship system, a law in the United Arab Emirates that gives companies the power to control and cancel the visas of the workers who come into the country as their hires.
Both the Guggenheim and New York University disputed much of the HRW report, telling ABC News today that safeguards are already in place to protect workers in Abu Dhabi, and the rights of these workers have always been their highest priority.
In a country with few nongovernmental organizations and even fewer vocal critics, Tuesday's press conference was a rare and bold move for Human Rights Watch.
The report found that many workers paid heavy recruiting fees to an agency that placed them in their construction jobs at Saadiyat Island, putting an overwhelming financial burden on many workers who made an average of $8 per day. The result, says Human Rights Watch, are conditions akin to forced labor.
The organization puts part of the blame for the labor situation on the cultural and educational organizations that plan to build outposts in Abu Dhabi.
"These international institutions need to show that they will not tolerate or benefit from the gross exploitation of these migrant workers," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The vague assurances they've received from their development partners are hollow substitutes for firm contractual agreements that their projects will be different from business as usual in Abu Dhabi."
The Guggenheim Foundation, in a statement sent to ABC News today, said it is "reviewing the report with care," saying the issues raised by Human Rights Watch are being addressed.
"As we have discussed with Human Rights Watch and as is acknowledged in the report, many of the issues are addressed by existing United Arab Emirates laws and statutes. The Guggenheim Foundation's agreement with TDIC requires both TDIC and the contractors it hires to comply with those laws," the statement said.
New York University (NYU) claimed a key allegation in the HRW report, that NYU officials admitted to HRW that they "had not sought any specific contractual guaratees" for workers rights, is "simply incorrect."
"Protecting the rights of workers who will be working on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus has been a mutually-driven, serious, and frequent topic of conversation with our Abu Dhabi partners since we began to explore the idea of NYU Abu Dhabi in 2007," NYU said in a statment provided to ABC News.
Human Rights Watch concedes the United Arab Emirates government has improved working conditions for many low-wage laborers. On Sunday, ABC News went on a tour of Construction Village, a housing development that will dramatically raise the standard of living for workers, offering such amenities as cooked meals and sports facilities. Banking systems are being devised to guard against wage withholding and other financial abuses.
But other reforms have yet to take root, Human Rights Watch contends. Some of them involve basic enforcement of laws and agreements the United Arab Emirates has in effect, such as a ban on recruiting fees and confiscating passports. Laws against collective bargaining and labor unions will likely remain. The most entrenched policy is the sponsorship system known as "kafala" in Arabic, which restricts workers from changing jobs. Kafala is common throughout the Gulf, though Bahrain announced it would end the practice earlier this month. Human Rights Watch has called on the United Arab Emirates to do the same.
On Tuesday, TDIC issued a point-by-point response to the Human Rights Watch report, saying that no workers had been denied access to their passports and that evidence of recruiting fees would be met by "appropriate action" against the labor agencies. Most of these practices had already been banned, according to a TDIC statement.
"Human Rights Watch made a number of claims and observations in its report dealing with specific issues, but most of these are already policies that have been implemented by TDIC since its inception, though this is not something Human Rights Watch has recognized in its report," the statement said.
The response to the report from other government officials and the state-owned press was dogged and dismissive. At the press conference, Habib Al Sayegh, a senior journalist with state-owned Al Khaleej newspaper, intervened repeatedly, denouncing Human Rights Watch and its findings.
For years, the U.S.-based advocacy group has called out the United Arab Emirates for poor labor conditions. Though the government maintains a 24-hour hotline for workers' complaints, Human Rights Watch says there is little legal recourse for abused workers, and that most are unaware of their rights. Unions and collective bargaining are not allowed in the country, nor are public protests. Recent cases of worker protests have ended in jail time and deportation for participants.
NYU and Guggenheim Questioned by Human Rights Watch Over Abu Dhabi Developments
Saadiyat Island, an estimated $27 billion project managed by the Travel Development and Investment Corporation (TDIC), a branch of the Abu Dhabi government, is part of a continuing effort to make the UAE a high-end tourist destination. Infrastructure work on the island, which began in 2006, will be followed by massive construction projects that will draw thousands of workers, drawn mostly from poor countries on the Asian subcontinent.
Abu Dhabi's Ministry of Labor commissioned an independent polling firm to do a survey of low-wage workers throughout the United Arab Emirates, the results intended to inform labor policy going forward. ABC News was shown the methodology and preliminary results, which showed some consistency with the Human Rights Watch report. They found that 91 percent of workers had to pay recruiting agencies, a majority paying "very high" fees.
Of the workers surveyed, 69 percent were satisfied with their current job, though 38 percent said they would like to change jobs given the chance. The survey also found that 98 percent of workers had their passports held by employers, but 76 percent said the passports were held for security at a worker's request. Human Rights Watch maintains that workers should be given lockers or otherwise accommodated without handing their passports to employers.
Labor Conditions Improving Slowly
"They need to reassess their business plan and pay the true cost of labor," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights.