In practice, even if some workers might have been eligible for cost-free sponsorship transfers, the foreign workers Human Rights Watch interviewed on Saadiyat Island believed that their only options were to remain in their jobs, or to quit, be deported and banned from returning to the UAE for one year. None were willing to lodge formal complaints against their employers. The reason, in many cases, is that they are deeply indebted and could not afford to lose their jobs.
A foreign construction worker's first step on the journey to the UAE is to contact a labor supply agency in his home country. The worker pays fees in exchange for the promise of a job in the UAE — specifically, for access to the labor permits and visas the UAE government issues only through UAE nationals. In cases where the company requires skilled workers, the agency may conduct preliminary interviews and administer tests to applicants in the source country, but where the company is seeking unskilled laborers the transaction is simpler: According to UAE law, construction companies in the UAE may contract only with licensed employment and labor supply agencies.
UAE laws fail, however, to penalize construction or other companies that continue to do business with agencies and recruiters that charge workers unlawful fees. Moreover, as is discussed in this section, from the point of view of UAE-based employers, the least expensive agencies to work with would be those that pass on their fees to the workers. Thus construction companies have an incentive to work with agencies that exploit migrants. Human Rights Watch noted in our report that despite UAE laws expressly prohibiting UAE recruiters from charging workers any fees, four of five recruiters interviewed admitted to flouting the law, and "every single construction worker interviewed said he had been required to pay up-front travel and visa fees to his recruiting agent.
The same uniform pattern appeared during our research in Every construction worker Human Rights Watch spoke to in Abu Dhabi reported paying large fees to recruitment agencies. Workers who live in remote areas — which are generally more likely to be impoverished than urban centers — go through one or more local agents before they reach the main agency, paying fees at each step. According to the supervisor of a labor camp where around Thai employees of Zueblin lived,. In our previous report on Dubai, Human Rights Watch found that workers who cannot raise money for the visa fees by borrowing from friends and family or selling land resort to taking loans with exorbitant monthly interest rates as high as 10 or 11 percent.
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Precisely the same problem persists in Abu Dhabi today. According to the labor counselor at the Bangladesh Embassy in Abu Dhabi, "The agency usually demands its money up front, and won't provide loans, so the workers get the money elsewhere, if they must, from money lenders. I sold my cows and took out a mortgage on my home. Many workers must work for months or years simply to pay off their loans.
I've paid it back now, but I spent absolutely nothing on myself for a year. I paid the fee with a no-interest loan from my relatives. But it's going to be hard to pay off my loan even in two or three years because I need to give money to my family; I can't just put it all into paying back the loan. Several workers, all of them illiterate, did not know how much of their loans they still had to pay off. I paid off my principal but I don't know how much interest I still owe. According to the labor counselor at the Embassy of Bangladesh, "The companies sell the work permits to the agencies, and then they bargain over who will pay for the rest of the costs, like the worker's plane tickets.
In some cases, even for construction companies not selling work visas, it is clear to them which agencies are charging unlawful fees and which are not: So it's a cost issue; if we pay the recruiting agency that is charging us, it's going to cost us a lot more for those workers. So sometimes we just close our eyes and go with the cheaper agency, and don't ask any questions.
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Human Rights Watch did not determine whether any of the construction companies with contracts on Saadiyat Island have engaged in selling work visas. Nor was it possible to determine, by interviewing workers, whether the labor-supply agencies they deal with in their home countries were involved with secondary recruitment agencies in the UAE or dealt directly with the construction companies operating on Saadiyat Island.
In response to question from Human Rights Watch, Al Habtoor Leighton Group responded that it does not pay any agency fees itself, but claimed it did not deal with agencies that charge "unreasonable" fees to workers due to awareness of "systemic flaws in many of the systems relating to the international treatment of labor. Zueblin AG said that it pays all agency and travel fees and does not withhold these costs from workers. Heavily-indebted foreign workers have mortgaged their futures for months or years to work in the UAE.
Many of the workers on Saadiyat Island were willing to take on large debts because labor supply agencies in their home countries lied about how much their salary would be upon arrival in the UAE. He has title to my land, and he will keep it if I don't pay off the loan. In some cases labor supply agencies promised workers more than double the salary they actually received upon arrival in the UAE. When he arrived on Saadiyat 13 months ago, he also earned only dirhams.
The problem extended to every company whose workers Human Rights Watch interviewed on Saadiyat Island. Many workers said their actual wages were roughly 25 to 40 per cent less than what they were promised. Although the most common deception workers reported related to salaries, some reported other kinds of dishonesty. Three workers for Zueblin from Jaipour, India, said that a labor supply agency promised they would each receive a three year work contract upon arrival in the UAE, but after nine months they had to get a new contract.
Workers have virtually no ability to seek redress from labor supply agencies in their home countries after they arrive in the UAE, which is when the agencies' fraud comes to light; and none of the workers interviewed who had complained to their UAE employers said they received any positive response. In a newspaper interview in , Under-secretary of Labour Hamid bin Demas said that the UAE government is not responsible for any employment contracts made outside the country.
According to the Bangladesh Embassy's labor counselor, a major evidentiary difficulty is that few workers had written copies of contracts from the home-country agencies. Without such contracts the embassies could not help workers could pursue remedies in any jurisdiction. The UAE should enforce laws requiring agencies to charge their fees to employers rather than to migrant workers and should pass laws that expressly penalize employers who do business with such agencies.
The UAE's failure to enforce the laws applying to agencies, and the legal loophole for employers, leaves indebted workers unable to afford to quit their jobs and thus vulnerable to abuse at the hands of their UAE employers. A Pakistani carpenter working for Zueblin told a joke to describe his situation:. The UAE government has taken several steps in response to the gross abuses of migrant construction workers by labor supply agencies.
On the international level, the UAE-led "Abu Dhabi Declaration" states that labor-sending countries in Asia and labor receiving countries in the GCC will work together to protect migrant workers' rights and facilitate migration. Pursuant to the declaration, the UAE, India and the Philippines will be studying small groups of migrant workers to identify best practices to achieving these goals. What does remain clear is that the practice of agencies charging workers fees prohibited by UAE law remains ubiquitous.
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Labor-source country agencies are undoubtedly part of the problem, as are UAE-based agencies that act as middlemen for construction companies. However, if construction companies in the UAE fail to pay all labor agency costs, continue to use agencies that charge workers fees, or sell work visas to agencies and allow those costs to be passed on to workers, they would also be responsible for workers' indebtedness — indebtedness which increases workers' vulnerability to exploitation by those same construction companies.
Construction companies that fail to take measures to avoid doing business with such labor agencies and sub-agencies, fail to inquire whether workers have paid such fees, or to reimburse workers for such fees, would be similarly participants in the abuse and exploitation of such workers. Human Rights Watch sought information from construction companies operating on Saadiyat Island, as well as from TDIC, about their policies and practices regarding labor supply agencies that charge workers fees for work visas or for plane fare, which under UAE law should also be wholly paid for by the employer.
As noted, only Ed. Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous workers employed on both contractors' Saadiyat Island projects who said they had been required to pay high fees to agencies and that their employers had not repaid them these costs. Officials from the embassies of several labor-sending countries said they were working with the UAE to implement a "unified contract" scheme, which would require UAE construction companies to fulfill the same contractual terms that workers agree to with agencies in their home countries.
The experience of several workers in the hospitality industry whom Human Rights Watch interviewed suggested methods for UAE construction companies to avoid working with unscrupulous labor supply agencies. Some hotel workers in Abu Dhabi and in Dubai said that they had applied directly to the hotels from their home countries — usually after learning about job opportunities from friends already employed by the hotel — and avoided the need to pay agencies altogether. Hotel management at the InterContinental Hotels Group IHG says IHG requires the labor agencies it contracts with not to charge workers fees, and described a system whereby human resources staff solicit in-person and anonymous feedback from newly-arrived foreign workers at IHG hotels in the UAE to determine if they have paid fees to agencies.
As a result of information initially received from workers, IHG has terminated its relationships with several agencies, including one in China. Companies require workers to sign new contracts upon arrival in the UAE. These contracts are based on a Ministry of Labor model contract, written in Arabic and English. Most workers interviewed said they did not understand these languages, and that they signed their contracts without receiving any explanation of the contractual terms. No construction workers we interviewed had copies of their UAE work contracts.
Workers sign these contracts in a coercive atmosphere. Some workers said companies threatened to deport them if they refused to sign. But after a month we all signed, because they were going to send us back. Because workers have already paid large fees to manpower agencies, they are not in a position to bargain over these contracts. Many workers interviewed said that their employers instructed them to sign UAE work contracts quickly and under pressure.
Several workers said company representatives told them to sign or fingerprint a blank sheet of paper, and afterwards were told that the company would fill in this sheet. Some workers said they believed this sheet was their contract, whereas others did not know what it was and were afraid it could be used against them. The workers said they were afraid that the company could somehow use these papers against them if they complained about working conditions or asked for pay increases.
It is not clear how or whether companies use these sheets of paper, but the answer may be related to requirements in UAE labor law. The law requires employers to pay employees an "end of employment gratuity" — a lump sum paid at the end of the employment contract before the worker leaves the UAE, which is calculated based on the time a worker stayed in the job. Thus companies might pay the worker a "gratuity" that is less than what the law requires but use the worker's signature or fingerprint to forge his acceptance of the gratuity.
However, a legal researcher at the Ministry of Labor complaints department in Abu Dhabi insisted that she would not terminate the work permit of any employee who did not personally appear to assert that his employer had paid him his entitlements. In response to Human Rights Watch's questions, Ed. Zueblin AG responded that it provided all workers with copies of their UAE work contracts in English and Arabic; never asked any employee to sign or fingerprint a blank sheet of paper; and that, before the workers' arrival in the UAE, any contracts were translated into the workers' native languages by the labor supply agencies in their home countries.
Based on the unanimity of responses on this point from workers we interviewed, it seems clear that companies are failing to adequately explain the terms of workers' contracts in a language the workers can understand and in a non-coercive setting or to provide them with copies of the contracts. In Dubai and Sharjah in , Human Rights Watch found that all migrant workers interviewed, including 60 construction workers, said their employers confiscated their passports upon their arrival in the UAE.
Our report concluded that despite acknowledging the illegality of the practice, the UAE government had "not taken any steps to put an end to it. Every worker Human Rights Watch interviewed for the current report said his employer had confiscated his passport. Confiscating passports violates the right to freedom of movement and is prohibited by UAE law. Some ministries keep passports on instructions of the Civil Service Department, others on directives from the Ministry of Finance and Industry, which demand that passports of cashiers must be retained. The UAE sponsorship system gives employers incentives to control their employees by confiscating their passports.
Sponsors may want to control employees to avoid liability, since the sponsor will be fined if one of its workers is discovered working for another employer, unless the sponsor has previously requested the cancellation of his work visa. Over and above these possible considerations is the desire to guarantee the continued availability of the workers' cheap labor.
Some companies confiscate workers' passports in order to "protect their investment," since they have incurred costs for each foreign worker, including work permit and residency visa fees, bank guarantees, recruitment agency fees, transportation, housing, and medical care — although as noted, many companies reportedly never pay agency fees and instead recoup some of these expenses by passing them along to the labor agency that then charges workers for their visas and plane fare. TDIC wrote to Human Rights Watch that "we require contractors to confirm that they do not engage in or support the use of forced labour and do not withhold employee passports and wages.
Zueblin AG cited "protection against theft," "centralized monitoring of expiry dates," and "access to passports in case of governmental queries" as its rationale for holding passports. These rationales do not justify depriving workers of documents which are their personal property and which are needed to realize the right of freedom of movement. Zueblin's response continued, "there were no restrictions for workers to have their passports returned at any time. HLG has told Human Rights Watch it believes that the security offered at its head office for such important documentation is superior to that which is available within its construction villages," implying that workers' passports are taken to a location some distance from the labor camps where they live.
An additional freedom of movement concern is that workers have only very limited access to transport to leave and return to Saadiyat Island. In , the Ministry of Labor designated Saadiyat Island as a place "remote from towns and not covered by regular means of transport," in the sense of Article of Labor Law No. The lack of access to transportation from Saadiyat Island severely limits workers' ability to seek redress for abuse, because it may render complaints mechanisms inaccessible.
The assistant manager of a large labor camp on Saadiyat told Human Rights Watch that "the buses take off once a week" for Abu Dhabi, to allow the workers to remit money home. Moreover, workers whose work permits were originally issued in other emirates, such as Dubai, are required to travel to the Ministry of Labor office in that emirate to file complaints.
Such travel would be extremely difficult for workers on Saadiyat Island. In some cases, the degree of control employers exert over migrant workers amounts to forced labor. Several employees of Abu Dhabi National Hotels Compass ADNH on Saadiyat Island told Human Rights Watch they wanted to quit their various jobs, but that their employer had threatened to fine them before returning their passports if they quit before completing two years' service.
One of the men summed up their problems:. The employee said that upon arrival in Dubai, "we had to sign our contracts on the bus from the airport at 4 in the morning," but that ADNH had not provided him or his coworkers with copies of their contracts. These ADNH workers' treatment amounts to forced labor in the following ways: The workers' only alternative would be to quit and work illegally for another employer, which could subject them to detention, deportation and a lifetime ban on employment in the UAE.
This encompasses forced labour exacted by public authorities as well as by private persons. States that have ratified the Convention have both an obligation to abstain and an obligation to "suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour in all its forms within the shortest possible period. According to the ILO, "The extraction of work or services 'under the menace of any penalty' does not mean that some form of penal sanction is applied; the penalty might take the form of a loss of rights or privileges.
The UAE government has been required by law to establish a minimum wage, which would help prevent such deceptive practices, since Workers' wages are broken down into a basic salary and overtime pay, with some companies also providing food allowances. The basic salary covers eight working hours per day. Workers said that one to two hours of unpaid breaks were interspersed among these eight hours.
Most laborers interviewed reported working for an additional two hours per day of overtime, for a total of up to 12 hours at the worksite. Workers who live in labor camps that are not on Saadiyat Island reported driving for up to two hours daily to and from the worksite. The majority of workers we spoke to fell into the bottom tier of the pay schedule at their respective construction companies. Zueblin AG reported the company paid them just over 3 dirhams per hour during both their regular and their overtime shifts.
Companies flout legal requirements to pay overtime at a higher rate, but continue to break down workers' salaries into basic and overtime categories. The reason may be that companies are obliged to provide workers with other payments that are calculated based on the basic salary. These required payments include paid annual leave of one month at the basic salary rate , and an "end of employment gratuity" that is calculated as a fraction of the basic salary that increases with the total number of years a worker has been employed, and which is paid at the end of his contract.
Prompt and regular payments are especially important to many foreign workers who owe large interest payments on debts incurred to work in the UAE. UAE law requires employers to pay the wages of construction workers at least once per month. In Human Rights Watch's previous report on labor practices in the UAE, nearly every worker interviewed reported having unpaid and late wages, consistent with frequent press accounts of workers protesting the failure of numerous companies to pay wages for several months.
It appeared to be the customary practice of employers to withhold the first two months of workers' wages as a "security deposit" to prevent workers from fleeing. According to the chief UAE Ministry of Labor inspector, "late payment and reduction in wages are the most two consistent violations" of workers' rights today. Unpaid and late wages continue to be a problem on Saadiyat Island. Several workers there told us that their employers had not paid them for more than two months after starting work.
A group of eight workers from Bangladesh, who said they were employed by Leighton to build a bridge, had been working for two and a half months on Saadiyat Island without being paid. The first of the three men said,. According to the Al Habtoor worker,. A mason working for Al Habtoor said his employer had transferred him to the island without paying him for the job he did on his previous worksite. As of June , UAE law requires employers to set up bank accounts for workers and transfer workers' salaries directly into these accounts.
According to news reports citing the Assistant Undersecretary of the Ministry of Labour, Obaid Rashid Al Zahmi, more than 90 per cent of the , companies in the UAE had not opened employee bank accounts by January Human Rights Watch witnessed a cash pay-day at the construction workers' accommodations on Saadiyat Island on July In interviews in late September and again in November, other Leighton and Al Habtoor workers said they were paid in cash.
Several Al Habtoor workers on Saadiyat said that their monthly cash payday could vary by one week or more. In response to questions from Human Rights Watch, Ed. Zueblin AG stated that all its workers are paid via electronic transfers into bank accounts on the 18th of the following month. Many workers complained that in addition to paying low wages, their employers deducted various amounts from their salaries.
Our report found that some companies illegally charged workers for visa renewal fees or health insurance. Among workers interviewed on Saadiyat Island, three Bangladeshi Al Habtoor employees said that upon arrival in the UAE seven months ago, they spent one month in a labor camp in Moussafa without any work to do and without receiving any salary. The company gave them an allowance of dirhams to pay for food during that month, but deducted the same amount from their salary after they finally began working.
UAE law does not require employers to provide their workers with food allowances. However, under UAE law, the employer is not permitted to deduct expenses from employees' wages in amounts greater than 10 per cent of the wage. Zueblin AG stated that all its workers are provided with food free of charge or receive a food allowance.
As noted, no other contractors responded to our questions. Many workers on Saadiyat said they worked long hours, spending up to 14 hours per day in transit to and from the worksite and on the site. We get eight hours' duty plus three hours overtime, plus another hour's break, or 12 hours total. Then we have to take a bus back to camp.
We have to take a number to cook. If we don't get a good number, we have to wait for sometimes one or two hours. It's the same after we get back from work. UAE law requires employees to be given unpaid breaks at least every five hours and limits the "maximum normal" working day to eight hours plus two hours overtime, but does not specify how long employees may be required to remain on the work site or in transit.
Some workers said they had worked for weeks or months on end without being given rest days.
A Zueblin worker on Saadiyat reported that he had worked 30 days consecutively without a rest day. A Nepalese guard on Saadiyat Island said he had worked for 21 months in these conditions. UAE law requires companies to grant paid leave amounting to two days per month worked to workers who have worked more than six months during their first year, and one month annually thereafter. A Punjabi carpenter who had worked on Saadiyat for 15 months told Human Rights Watch that his employer, Zueblin, gave this response when it denied his request to return his passport.
You get two months off and are paid dirhams for each month, but you have to buy your own plane ticket home. The leave is the only time you get your passport. Zueblin AG stated that its workers generally work six days per week and may take days off for any full days worked on public holidays during the following week.
In the prime minister of the UAE decreed that employers should be required to provide health insurance for low-skilled workers. The "camp boss" at an Al Habtoor labor camp in Moussafa told Human Rights Watch that the company provided three male nurses for workers. Many workers complained that they had to pay for medicine or healthcare themselves and have not been reimbursed by their companies.
An al Habtoor employee said that when he had a medical problem, "I went two or three times to the male nurse, but each time he said 'today we're not available'. Several workers said that in cases of serious injury, the company will provide transportation to a hospital and will pay the hospital bill up front, but would then deduct that amount from the worker's salary.
An Arabtec worker said, "The company will pay your medical bills up front, but you have to pay them back. Workers with medical problems may be undertreated because of the difficulty of obtaining medical treatment beyond what the medical staff directly employed by the workers' own employers provide. Workers said companies required a doctor's certificate in cases of health-related absences from work; several workers said that without a certificate, the company docked them two days' pay for one day's absence. However, workers said doctors were reluctant to sign certificates, or that the out-of-pocket cost of going to a doctor was likely to exceed the salary they would lose.
One worker said that he could ask a doctor for a letter stating that he was too sick to work, but that obtaining the letter would require him to leave work for the day. In response to Human Rights Watch's questions, Zueblin stated that all its employees had health insurance cards that entitled them to free health care at a local hospital, but added that "any relevant additional medical expenses are reimbursed to the worker upon presentation of the receipt.
The Al Habtoor Leighton Group said in a letter that it "pays for all medical care for its workers," has male nurses in each of its "construction villages" and "a qualified doctor dedicated to the construction villages" the letter did not specify how many workers live in the construction villages this doctor services ; and that the company ensures all workers requiring hospital treatment receive it promptly. Abu Dhabi law requires employers and business owners to provide health insurance coverage for employees, including all non-UAE nationals and their families.
Human Rights Watch was unable to determine how many workers, if any, have died from work-related accidents on Saadiyat Island. No public figures are available. In response to a written question from Human Rights Watch asking whether it collected or would make public figures on how many workers had died on the island, TDIC stated that it required its contractors to "prepare and submit monthly progress reports which includes safety statistics and details of hazardous incidents and activities," but it did not provide us with any figures or state whether it would make such figures available.
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No workers interviewed on Saadiyat Island reported seeing workplace deaths, although some reported serious accidents; one had witnessed a man fall off a bridge being built to link the island to Abu Dhabi city. The head of the Emergency Department at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi said that from to foreign construction workers presented daily to the hospital or its community-based clinic in Khalifa City also in Abu Dhabi emirate.
Work-related injuries included "pieces of cement and steel chips in their eyes," "hand injuries from grinders or power tools," and falls. The Bangladesh Embassy in Abu Dhabi estimated that it repatriated the bodies of eight to ten construction workers per month; on average, three were work-related deaths; one was a suicide; one a murder; and the rest were car accidents. Volunteers with an NGO that advocates for the rights of construction workers said the NGO received 10 to 15 notifications of "serious" injuries among foreign construction workers per day.
Additionally, the NGO confirmed an average of three suicides per week among foreign construction workers in the UAE, because the workers could not pay their debts. Police officers are stationed at the emergency department of Sheikh Khalifa hospital, and are tasked with reporting certain injuries to their supervisor. In November , the chairman of a consortium of construction companies called Build Safe Dubai since renamed "Build Safe UAE" , criticized the Dubai Municipality and the UAE government for their failure to publish information about workplace accidents.
In , Human Rights Watch found that national UAE figures of workplace deaths among migrant construction workers appeared to indicate a severe under-reporting problem. Construction Week reported that over construction workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh had died in the UAE that year, with up to 30 percent of the deaths caused by worksite accidents. That year, Indian construction workers died in Dubai and the northern emirates and in Abu Dhabi, according to Construction Week 's research.
In contrast, the only municipality to report any official figures at all, Dubai, recorded only 34 deaths of construction workers of all nationalities at their workplaces in and 39 deaths in Despite the common misconception peddled by shock jocks that new immigrants flock here for social security benefits, most in fact are desperate for work. That puts pressure on wages. It is little surprise then that in the past decade, housing prices, particularly in the major centres have soared while wages growth now is the slowest since the last recession.
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It's never a simple, linear argument. Immigrants are amazingly adept at starting their own businesses, thereby creating employment. And record low interest rates combined with tax incentives that have transformed housing into a preferred investment vehicle have been the primary drivers in inflating the east coast housing bubble. But there's no denying the failure of successive governments to develop infrastructure that would have facilitated new housing, thereby helping alleviate the dangerous east coast property bubble, and maintained productivity.
In the past week, there has been a clear shift in Federal Government thinking. The scaling back of visas — which undoubtedly have been rorted — and the tougher approach to citizenship appear to herald a new approach to immigration. Once again though, the motivation appears to be more on pandering to electoral and party room prejudice than being sourced in sound economics or environmental grounds. Political posturing aside, it would appear Canberra unwittingly has exposed itself to a far greater problem.
Most of our economic growth forecasts have been based on population growth of around , a year; almost a new city. With the mines now running at peak capacity, resource prices in decline and the east coast housing boom on its final doomed run, a pull back on immigration — the secret weapon in our economic miracle — will leave our leaders with nowhere to hide.
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To further complicate matters, if productivity is to be lifted, a major infrastructure spend is required; the money that should have been spent all along to cope with the immigration intake. Perhaps they will be forced to confront serious fiscal issues if they truly want to bring the budget deficit back under control instead of simply relying on endless numbers of new arrivals to inflate the economy and the tax base.
Maybe they will get serious about a resources rent tax, rather than idly standing by and watching the nation's riches hauled off for little return. Tax cuts for foreign corporations may take a back seat to enforcing the law on company tax. And they might even question whether we can afford the enormous tax breaks on superannuation and property investment for the wealthy. First posted April 24, If you have inside knowledge of a topic in the news, contact the ABC.
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