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.
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.
"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.