TDIC pleased with Human Rights Watch report but disputes methodology

Human Rights Watch report finds 'notable improvements' in working conditions for labourers but says more needs to be done to protect their rights.

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ABU DHABI // The Tourism Development and Investment Company says it is pleased that Human Rights Watch (HRW) has acknowledged its efforts in worker welfare.

But it called into question the researchers’ methodology, saying the interviews used in the report represented only a small number of workers and contractors.

The HRW report, released Wednesday, found “notable improvements” in some areas, including regular payment of wages, rest breaks and employer-paid medical insurance.

The working conditions of labourers on Saadiyat Island has vastly improved in recent years but the lobby group said more could be done to protect their rights.

“For too long, migrant workers in the UAE have toiled in abusive conditions with private and public developers showing little concern,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the director for HRW in the Middle East and North Africa.

“Now, finally, 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.”

TDIC, however, said it “firmly believes that this report is not an accurate reflection of the current situation on Saadiyat”.

In interviews with 47 workers, researchers found some abuses were continuing, most notably that workers said they paid between US$900 (Dh3,305) and $3,350 in recruitment fees for jobs.

TDIC said ensuring labourers were not forced to pay expensive recruitment fees was a challenge.

“This practice mainly occurs in the worker’s country of origin, making it an extremely difficult problem to address from the UAE,” the company said.

TDIC urged HRW to lead the campaign against recruitment fees, an initiative it said it would support.

A year ago, the federal Government called on nations that supply labour to the UAE to strengthen their laws regulating recruitment agencies.

It said those nations needed to better collaborate with the Emirates authorities for the protection of their workers.

A statement by New York University Abu Dhabi, which is building a new campus on Saadiyat Island, said the report “acknowledges the major steps that we and our government partners have taken to ensure the health and welfare of the individuals who are building” the facility.

“We also welcome any new, actionable information that will enable us to accomplish our goals on this front.”

But the university also disputed parts of the report.

“Whereas our third-party compliance auditors conduct worker interviews each and every month, it appears that HRW’s latest report relies on interviews that took place between 14 and 17 months ago,” it said.

“In a number of cases, the report also fails to indicate which project an individual was working on, which makes researching and/or addressing specific claims virtually impossible.”

In May last year, the island’s master developer appointed an independent monitor to oversee worker welfare, but it has not yet released any reports.

HRW acknowledged that such steps had improved conditions, but said more work was needed to further improve the situation.

Institutions and companies with projects on Saadiyat, which will also be the future home to branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, have pledged to ensure prompt salary and overtime payments and improved housing.

Wednesday's report is a progress update to the group's 2009 report. The researchers interviewed workers between October 2010 and January last year.