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UAE progress on worker rights, but more needed

March 21, 2012

A watchdog accused the UAE of failing to tackle abuse of migrant workers and called for contractual guarantees. — File Photo

DUBAI: Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that UAE companies and their foreign partners have made progress but needed to more to address the abuse of South Asian workers building a huge cultural complex.

“Emirati developers and their international partners have stepped up to the plate on Saadiyat Island to start to protect workers, but they will need to do more to curtail the abuses,” said HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.

In a report, HRW focused on labour conditions at the multi-billion dollar project, located in the sea off Abu Dhabi, where branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums and New York University are planned.

In 2009, the New York-based watchdog accused the United Arab Emirates and international institutions of failing to tackle abuse of migrant workers and called for contractual guarantees from construction firms.

Since then, educational and cultural bodies and UAE developers have become more committed to ensuring, among other rights, the regular payment of wages as well as rest breaks and days off.

They have also hired “independent monitors to detect and report publicly on violations of workers' rights on the island,” said HRW.

But the rights group said it “found lapses in effectively punishing abusive contractors and following through on promises to make monitoring reports public.”

And many workers still have to pay recruitment fees to obtain jobs and contractors regularly confiscate passports.

In addition, workers are offered contracts in their homeland but these are substituted for “less favourable” ones when they arrive in the oil-rich Gulf state.

Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company, the government arm charged with developing Saadiyat Island and Abu Dhabi's Executive Affairs Authority, developing the NYU campus, “need to remain vigilant by punishing offending contractors and disclosing these penalties publicly,” Whitson said.