New York University issued an official apology on Monday to laborers who suffered any abuse during the building of its newly-completed Abu Dhabi campus (NYUAD) after an investigative report exposed appalling working conditions at the construction site.
However, such treatment of immigrant workers shouldn’t really come as a surprise to NYU– or the world in general – since this is not an uncommon occurrence in the region.
In fact, widespread abuses of labor force in these states have been documented to death for years. Still, it’s important to talk about it time and again because international powers and the Arab governments associated with these multi-billion-dollar projects have done almost nothing to address the issue.
For instance, earlier this year in February, internationally renowned architect Zaha Hadid, who is designing the largest of Qatar’s World Cup stadiums, refused to address the deaths of hundreds of Nepali and Indian migrant workers in the country.
"I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that's an issue the government—if there's a problem—should pick up,” was Hadid’s reply to the press.
In a damning article report published on Sunday, The New York Times revealed that workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were beaten and jailed after protesting over their meager salaries. Many stated that their passports were confiscated and they were forced to live in filthy, crowded rooms.
“Sama Tower, the new home for incoming NYUAD students and their new, extended NYUAD families, is a modern, 45-story residential tower conveniently located on Sheikh Zayed the Second Street (locally known as Electra Street, just off Airport Road), Abu Dhabi,” states the official website of the university while – obviously – failing to mention the horrid reality behind the grandeur.
But that’s usually the case with these Arab countries, which are known, and sometimes criticized, for their obsessive showmanship – even if it puts innocent lives at stake.
Out of the six Arab states of the Persian Gulf which include, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain and Oman, the first four are the worst as far as treatment of migrants and/or laborers is concerned.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE):
Immigrants account for more than 88.5 percent of UAE residents, many of them low-paid South Asian workers, according to 2011 government statistics.
The desert country is home to luxurious artificial islands, winter ski resorts and Burj Khalifa – currently the tallest man-made structure in the world. However, it purportedly subjects its workforce to a range of human rights abuses.
In March 2006, around 2,500 laborers in Dubai rioted over poor pay and working conditions, causing damage worth an estimated US$1 million. Another strike took place in October 2007, in which thousands of foreign construction workers protested against long hours, no minimum wage, harsh living conditions and no legal forums to register their complaints over management.
“A flawed 2012 draft law for domestic workers has yet to be adopted and a regional unified contract for domestic workers, expected to be approved in 2014, falls well short of the minimum standards outlined in the Domestic Workers Convention that the ILO adopted in 2011,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated in its World Report 2014.
The country that plans to make the next world’s tallest building is probably the worst choice for the project because it has had a rather unhealthy relationship with its migrant workforce in the past.
“Over 9 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical, and service jobs, constituting more than half the labor force,” states HRW, adding that female domestic workers are mostly overworked and suffer forced confinement, non-payment of wages, food deprivation as well as psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.
The most publicized case with regards to this issue in Saudi Arabia was that of a 24-year-old Sri Lankan Rizanna Nafeek, who was executed last year, after authorities charged her with the murder of a baby in 2005.
Saudi authorities ignored the fact that Nafeek was only 17 at the time of her alleged crime and she was not allowed a competent translator during the interrogation.
Currently, this is the only Gulf state that is committing mass abuses against its workforce.
Qatar is upgrading its infrastructure in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup – which includes building large soccer stadiums and luxurious accommodations for visitors.
However, authorities have failed to provide adequate protection to its foreign workers against serious rights abuses, including forced labor and trafficking.
Immigrants make up almost 94% of Qatar's workforce, and 70% of its total population– which is a lot.
Reports of the deaths of laborers made global headlines last year. The Guardian claims that “more than 500 Indian migrant workers have died since January 2012 and more than 380 Nepalese workers died in 2012 and 2013.”
But the Qatari government refuted all such reports last week.
“Contrary to what the international media says there has not been a single injury or death on the World Cup projects," said Nasser Al Khater, the media and marketing director of the Qatar organizing committee for the World Cup.
Foreigners make up about 69 percent of Kuwait's 3.8 million population. In fact, not four years ago it had the highest ratio of domestic workers to citizens in the Middle East.
Last year, Kuwait initiated a crackdown on its migrant workers to reduce their numbers. To achieve that purpose, they adopted several indirect and non-judicial methods which received widespread condemnation from human rights advocates.
Authorities deported thousands of mainly low-paid Asian workers from the oil-rich state for working without the correct visa or residency papers or for repeat traffic offences.
In Kuwait, women employed as domestic workers, commonly south and south-east Asian nationals, are most likely to suffer abuse.
Household maids who leave employers do so without pay after being subjected to exploitation, according to HRW.
BBC reiterated the same point in its report:
“They are denied food or medical care, detained against their will and have few avenues to make complaints or obtain shelter.”
In 2010, a Sri Lankan maid prompted international outrage after revealing she was imprisoned by her Kuwaiti employers, without pay, for 13 years.
In the same year, a Filipino help was allegedly tortured and killed by her bosses, who the media said ran over her body with a car in the desert in order to make her death look like an accident.
While all these states are striving to recognized as modernized countries, it is staggering to see the manner in which they treat the very people who built the magnificent structures the Gulf is so proud of.