The Art of Exploitation

(The German version was originally published under a pseudonym in WOZ Die Wochenzeitung. The interviews were carried out in June 2015).

(Abu Dhabi, UAE) Much has been written on the foreign workers who built the New York University (NYU) and are still building the Guggenheim and Louvre museums in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat island. Reports of human rights violations have prompted NYU to order an independent enquiry into the mistreatment of workers (the Nardello report), which confirmed the abuse of one third of the working force employed in the university’s construction sites, with violations ranging from sub-standard accommodations to payment disputes escalated into forced deportations.

Apart from NYU, the Saadiyat gargantuan cultural enterprises are managed by the State-run Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC). The TDIC took its first steps to ward human rights’ activists in 2009, when it announced an Employement Practices Policy (EPP) aimed at improving the workers’ welfare in Saadiyat. The EPP forbids retaining passports, although the ban is sometimes circumvented by asking laborers to sign a “handover form” allowing companies to keep their documents for “safety reasons”. It also states clearly that, with the exception of temporary staff and arranged exceptions, all the workers hired for TDIC projects should be accommodated in the Saadiyat Accommodation Village (SAV), which hosts up to six employees per room and is fully equipped with recreational facilities. Furthermore, the EPP stipulates that no worker should pay fees to recruitment agencies prior to his arrival in the UAE and, if this occurred, his employers should reimburse him. Finally, it grants foreign laborers the right to return home every year.

On the other hand, the most prominent critical voices on the workers’ conditions have been banned from the UAE: NYU prof. Andrew Ross and artists Ashok Sukumaran and Walid Raad are only some of the blacklisted names. “Artists and professors come attached to these institutions and denying access to them highlights how these projects are not about art, but about influence and power behind a sophisticated facade,” commented in a Skype interview Nicholas McGeehan, the Human Rights Watch Gulf researcher who has been banned from the UAE for his latest report (Feb 2015) on the workers conditions’ in Saadiyat.

A recurrent argument of the Emirati labor policy’s supporters is the unsuitability of Western human rights standards, while ignoring the fact that the Qur’an praises the manumission of slaves; there is thus nothing intrinsically Islamic or Arab in the exploitative kafala system subjecting the workers’ legal status to their employers’ sponsorship.

In a country where investigations are accepted only when they are turned into organized tours, WOZ decided to verify independently the laborers’ conditions in some less known projects in Saadiyat.

This Emirati island has been reclaimed from the sea to convert it into the crown jewel of Abu Dhabi’s touristic industry. While low-paid migrant workers reside in the city centre, most of the luxurious projects targeting wealthy expats and tourists are expanding on reclaimed islands such as Yas, Rim and Saadiyat.

Nonetheless, apart from the NYU campus and a couple of high-end hotels, Saadiyat is still a vast sandy construction site where workers wander around under the scorching sun, shielding their features behind Arab kufiyyat. The museums are scheduled to open in the next five years.

The British Cranleigh boarding school has also set up Abu Dhabi’s largest school campus in Saadiyat: designed over seven hectares of land to accommodate 1600 (three to eighteen-year-old) students, its fees range from 65.000 to 85.000 dhm per year (16.500 to 20.300 chf). Cranleigh opened in 2014, but its facilities are yet to be completed.

In line with the tradition of boarding schools, Cranleigh looks like a gated community for well-off kids pampered by the wide offer of cultural and sport activities on astroturf pitches. In the words of the construction workers, the UAE’s elitarian foreign educational institutions are anonymously ordered spaces. “Each time I pass by the French Sorbonne University [N/A: located in Rim Island], there are no students chatting in front of its gates…Which kind of university is that?!” commented Ravindra (36)[1], an Indian employee of the Emirati Target, a major Arabtec construction firm with 6500 workers and a 1105 billion dhm (449 million chf) yearly turnover. An avid reader of philosophy, Ravindra is financially supporting his wife and their two kids back home.

The main contractor on the Cranleigh site is an Emirati Royal Group company called Tafseer, which counted around 2000 laborers and a turnover of 409 million dhm (104 million) in 2012[2]. The Royal Group conglomerate is chaired by a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family.

WOZ spoke with six South Asian Tafseer employees and all of them had their passports confiscated by the company, a practice which is extremely common for everyone except for the (Western) expats.

All of the Tafseer workers employed in Saadiyat live in the company’s own camp in Rim Island, a structure with ten people per room (the minimum legal standard in the UAE), where there are no recreational facilities despite the related Emirati law. The camp hosts 25.000 workers from different companies. Here rooms are divided according to nationalities in reflection of the UAE’s socio-ethnic cleavages: all workers are aware that their wages are determined by the “value” of their passports in a deeply racialized labor market (for example, the Target employees reported that a Bangladeshi generally earns less than a Pakistani, but more than a Nepali).

The Tafseer camp appears to be a cheaper option than SAV. “What are these workers doing in this camp? The problem is that subcontractors [N/A: and contractors] don’t want to pay for SAV, ” prof. Ross, the NYU academic banned from the UAE, told WOZ in a written interview.

Some laborers were scared or tired, but those who dared to speak out knew very well the misdeeds of Tafseer. “It’s been 2 months since we received our wages, the last time we waited for 3 months,” said Bilal, a 28-year-old Bangladeshi Tafseer employee who has been working on the Cranleigh site for one year and a half.

Christopher is an Indian Christian Target employee in his fifties living in the Tafseer camp, who has already worked in several Gulf countries and considers the UAE the most tolerant towards non-Muslims. He told WOZ about a protest cracked down by the police one month ago, when the Tafseer workers rose up demanding their four-month late wages. Strikes and workers’ protests are illegal in the UAE. The recurrence of Tafseer‘s late payments was further confirmed by a Bangladeshi supplier working for construction firms in Saadiyat.

In the UAE modern slavery blossoms in the same gardens adorning the country’s touristic attractions. Manarat Saadiyat is located in front of Cranleigh School, it’s the complex of museum galleries and restaurants where tourists are indoctrinated about the Nahyan ruling family’s “vision” of the future of Saadiyat. Emirates Landscape, a Danish-Emirati joint venture, is in charge of the manteinance of Manarat Saadiyat’s gardens as a subcontractor of Sigma Integrated, a company hired by TDIC for the provision of services in both Manarat Saadiyat and Cranleigh School.

WOZ managed to approach a group of Emirates Landscape gardeners. “These two colleagues of mine arrived less than one year ago, after paying respectively 5500 and 4000 dhm (1271 and 1000 chf) to a recruitment agency in their countries,” said Nawaz (36), a green-eyed Afghani senior employee at Emirates Landscape, while pointing at two younger colleagues respectively from Sri Lanka and India. None of them has been reimbursed.

“They both earn 900 dhm (229 chf) per month, 200 dhm (51 chf) are deducted for food…if you count the money spent calling home and other expenses, they can only send 300 dhm (76 chf) to their families,” affirmed Nawaz. That means between 6 and 8 months to start earning something. A 900 dhm salary is actually considered a decent one according to the Emirati slavery-like standards for unskilled employees (650 dhm (165 chf) per month) in a country lacking laws on minimum wage.

Deductions are illegal in SAV, but Emirates Landscape was unmotivatedly allowed to accommodate its workers in the al-Mafraq camps, two structures which have been already criticized for the poor quality of their catering service. Furthermore, the Emirates Landscape gardeners are allowed to travel home every two years rather than one.

All these accounts suggest a wider reform of the UAE’s labor law and particularly of its enforcement policies are urgently needed before awarding the Emirates with other major construction projects like the ones featured in EXPO Dubai 2020. In the bigger picture, the campaign of solidarity with the workers of Saadiyat finds its raison d’être in the much more ambitious struggle for the creation of a safety net for all migrant workers in the GCC countries.  “NYU should launch additional research initiatives on labor systems in the Emirates and surrounding Gulf region, […] a living wage, for example, or research aimed at reform of the exploitative kafala system,” Kristina Bogos, a NYU Fair Labor Coalition’s student leader, told WOZ in a written interview.

[1]             Names have been changed to protect the identity of the workers.

[2]             Most updated figures available online.

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