In a rush to establish outposts in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, venerable American institutions, including New York University and the Guggenheim Museum of Art, are not addressing concerns about migrant labor, human rights advocates say.
NYU, which will have the first American comprehensive liberal arts school campus in the Middle East, and a Frank Gehry-designed branch of the Guggenheim Museum are some of the big names that have buildings in the works on the developing Saadiyat Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi and which are of concern to activists.
"We don't believe that they are doing nearly enough to avoid the exploitation of workers in their own projects," said Human Rights Watch's Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the organization's Middle East and North Africa division. She said that the institutions have not made public commitments to ensuring that its construction workers are not exploited.
Whitson says that while the UAE government needs to investigate, prosecute and penalize contactors that break the nation's labor laws, these organizations need to take responsibility themselves. These measures, she said, should include reimbursing workers who are found to have paid an illegal recruiting fee (one of the most common abuses that can total as much as $3000), ceasing dealings with contractors who use recruiters who charge such fees, ensuring that housing and work sites are safe and that health and safety records are kept, and guaranteeing that workers' passports are not confiscated and that monthly wages are paid regularly.
"It should be no more acceptable to build on the backs of exploited migrant workers than it is to use child labor," said Whitson.
ABCNews.com contacted the institutions identified by HRW for comment.
After repeated request for comment, NYU responded late Friday by saying "the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi, through its own entity, will hire the developers and contractors to build the NYUAD Campus on Saadiyat Island. To date, such an entity has not been formed and work has not begun on the Island for NYUAD."
NYU also said it is "committed to the values of fairness, dignity and respect for every individual who engages in work on behalf of building the NYUAD Campus on Saadiyat Island."
The issue has been raised on the Manhattan campus, with the Coalition for Fair Labor at NYU saying that NYU Abu Dhabi "risks undermining the importance of labor rights …and exacerbating migrant labor exploitation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)."
The coalition also collected signatures to urge the university to "sign – and insist its UAE partners abide by – the Fair Labor Code of Conduct, which governs workplace relationships with all subcontractors involved in construction and day-to-day operations of the campus."
NYU junior Claire Lewis, a member of the coalition and of the campus chapter of Students Creating Radical Change, said she's one of many who have been asking the university for proof that it is addressing the issue. She says they've had no response.
"I want something contractually that says workers rights will be protected at a place that has my university's name on it," Lewis said.
The Guggenheim Museum did not offer comment, and a representative for Frank Gehry declined to discuss the issue.
The Abu Dhabi developer which is leading the Saadiyat Island expansion, Tourism Development & Investment Company, did not respond to a request about how workers rights are being addressed. But the company did tell a blogger inquiring about the issue that "TDIC is committed to best practices in every aspect in which it operates and requires its partners to adhere to a code of best practices, including the treatment of overseas workers."
Saadiyat Island Set to be the Next Hot UAE Destination
On its surface, Saadiyat Island, a natural island being developed in the Arabian waters of United Arab Emirate's Abu Dhabi, seems to have all the makings of an up-and-coming luxury coastal retreat: a name that translates to "happiness," celebrity-designed hotels and championship golf courses, and an ever-growing array of cultural institutions from around the world.
But behind these multi-billion dollar plans, human rights advocates say, the nation's long pervasive problem of exploiting the foreign workers building its burgeoning swanky skyline is still widespread.
Migrant construction workers in the UAE, and the conditions under which they are exploited, were part of an ABC News exclusive report that journeyed into the emirate of Dubai to expose the dark side of the boomtown. The team found construction workers, mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, working as many as six days a week, 12 hours a day, in excruciating heat, returning "home" to extremely crowded living camps. That story focused on conditions in Dubai, not in Abu Dhabi.
In a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch detailed the abuse workers, most of whom hail from South Asia and send their earnings back to their families, suffer at the hands of their employers, including: hazardous working conditions resulting in high rates of death and injury, unpaid or extremely low wages, confiscated passports, and, in some cases, severe indebtedness to recruitment agencies to repay fees that UAE law said were supposed to be paid by the employer.
Workers Say They Work Long Hours, Sometimes With No Pay
Workers told HRW in 2006 that they were forced to work 11 hours a day for as little as $5, money which was sometimes not paid for months. They would not disclose their full names out of fear of employer punishment or deportation by the government.
"Behind the glitter and luxury," HRW said of the UAE in its report, "the experiences of these migrant workers present a much less attractive picture – of wage exploitation, indebtedness to unscrupulous recruiters, and working conditions that are hazardous to the point of being deadly. UAE federal labor law offers a number of protections, but for migrant construction workers these are largely unenforced."
Just days after the Brian Ross investigative team began asking questions, the government there announced reforms to improve workplace conditions. And recently, the nation submitted progress reports to the UN, detailing its "great progress legislating and enforcing the rights of its labour force."
"The UAE is designing laws and policies to ensure that its workers feel welcome and safe and to familiarize them with their rights and how those rights can be protected," the report states.
But Joe Stork, deputy director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division who visited the UAE this summer, said he has not seen progress.
"The government has still not instituted a minimum wage and, in fact, has indicated they have no plans to do so," Stork offered as an example. "Last year they put out a draft revised labor law soliciting comments. We commented on it and, since then, not a word."
He said the UAE government has indicated that it will increase inspection of labor sites, but those plans are still in the works.
"Inspectors aren't out there on the streets and in the labor camps," Stork said. He added that beyond a new mandate for an afternoon break for workers during the hot summer months, he can't think of "a single recommendation that we made that's actually been met."
HRW is working on a new report about the abuse of workers in Abu Dhabi, which is expected to be released in early 2009.
ABCNews.com was unable to reach the UAE government for comment.
Safwan Masri, a vice dean at the Columbia Business School who visits Dubai every couple months, said the growth that the UAE has experienced in recent years has created new challenges with regards to the working conditions, pay scales, and rights and privileges of migrant workers. Masri said, however, that the government is addressing those issues and trying to find solutions, even though they are not easily solved.
"When you have a city where 85 percent of the population is expatriate," Masri said, "that comes with its set of challenges. And when it's seen the growth it has seen over the past few years, those challenges grow very rapidly."
The underlying problem, says Nicholas McGeehan, who began advocating for the rights of migrant workers when he worked for two state-owned oil companies in Abu Dhabi from 2002 to 2006, is that there is no benefit to contractors for treating workers well.
"The way the labor system is set up, there's no requirement for companies to do that," McGeehan said. "In fact, you're just driving your cost up."
When asked why the workers endure the conditions in the UAE, Whitson said they are "very desperate, very vulnerable people who don't really have any options."
"For them, it's a matter of survival," Whitson said of the estimated half a million migrant workers are estimated to be in the nation. "The problem is people who know better – people who are in a position to not exploit people just because they can and to not take advantage of the most vulnerable people on this earth."
This post has been revised as of 8:30pm Nov. 7, 2008.