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Thousands of South Asian migrant workers building a US$27 billion island development in the United Arab Emirates face severe exploitation and abuse, in some cases amounting to forced labor, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Labor-supply agencies, construction companies, and repressive laws are responsible for the abuse.
The 80-page report, "'The Island of Happiness': Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi," found that while the UAE government has moved to improve housing conditions and ensure the timely payment of wages in recent years, many labor abuses remain commonplace. International institutions planning to open branches on the island - including the Guggenheim, New York University (NYU), and the French Museum Agency (responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi) - should urgently obtain enforceable contractual guarantees that construction companies will protect workers' fundamental rights on their projects, Human Rights Watch said.
"These international institutions need to show that they will not tolerate or benefit from the gross exploitation of these migrant workers," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The vague assurances they've received from their development partners are hollow substitutes for firm contractual agreements that their projects will be different from business as usual in Abu Dhabi."
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, hopes to turn Saadiyat Island (the "island of happiness") into an international tourist destination. The low-lying island will have four museums and a performing arts center designed by world-renowned architectural firms - including Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Foster and Partners, and Gehry Partners - as well as a campus of New York University, golf courses, hotels, and expensive residences.
Workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other South Asian countries have been building the island's infrastructure since Abu Dhabi formed the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) to oversee the project in 2005. On May 27, 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is scheduled to lay the foundation stone of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The museum is expected to open in 2013.
Based on interviews with migrant workers, and meetings with UAE and French government officials, as well as officers of international institutions and corporations with projects on the island, the Human Rights Watch report documents a cycle of abuse that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, badly paid, and unable to stand up for their rights or even quit their jobs.
The UAE government and the authorities responsible for developing Saadiyat Island have failed to tackle the root causes of worker abuse: unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages, and a sponsorship system that gives an employer virtually complete power over his workers.
To obtain the visas needed to work in the UAE, nearly all workers Human Rights Watch interviewed on Saadiyat Island paid hefty fees to "labor-supply agencies" in their home countries that are contracted to supply workers to construction companies in the UAE. Because the agencies promised good terms of employment in the UAE, many workers sold their homes or land or borrowed money at high rates of interest to pay the agencies' fees. Upon arrival in the UAE, the indebted workers - many of whom are illiterate - are required to sign contracts with the construction companies on much worse terms than they had been promised back home. Workers have virtually no recourse against the agencies that cheated them with false promises of good wages and exploitative recruiting fees.
UAE laws prohibit agencies from charging workers such fees. The agencies are supposed to charge the companies, but the law is not enforced. Further, there are no penalties if companies, pursuing their own financial interests, knowingly work with agencies that make workers pay the fees.
Workers face the choice of quitting their jobs while still owing thousands of dollars for the unlawful recruiting fees, or continuing to work in exploitative conditions. Virtually all complained of low pay and poor-quality healthcare. Nor can workers effectively demand better pay or living conditions, because UAE laws do not protect the basic rights to form unions, bargain collectively, or strike. Instead, the UAE's "sponsorship" system gives employers nearly absolute control over the workers' lawful employment and presence in the country, with visas tied to individual employers. All workers said that when they arrived in the UAE, their employers had confiscated their passports. Employers can move to revoke the visa of a worker who quits, leading to deportation.
Some workers reported conditions that amount to forced labor: their employer threatened to fine them heavily if they tried to quit before they had worked for two years, which effectively confined them to the "island of happiness." Workers are generally not aware of their rights and are afraid of expressing grievances, and independent and effective monitoring is lacking.
"The museums and NYU should insist that their local development partners guarantee workers' basic rights, which at minimum should include reimbursement for unlawful recruiting fees, official contracts in their native language signed prior to their arrival, and the right to strike and bargain collectively," said Whitson. "And they should insist on independent third-party monitoring of their projects, and impose meaningful penalties for violations."
Research on Saadiyat Island did show that authorities have taken some positive steps. Although workers' accommodations were still under construction when Human Rights Watch visited the island, they appeared to be relatively hygienic and not overcrowded. TDIC, the government-owned company overseeing the island's development, has sought contractual guarantees from construction companies that they will not confiscate workers' passports, use forced labor, or commit other abuses.
Human Rights Watch contacted the construction companies, architectural firms, and international institutions working on the island to alert them to the need to take steps to ensure workers on their projects are not abused. Many did not reply to our letters. Among the Guggenheim, New York University, and the French Museum Agency (responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi project), only the Agency has taken any steps to seek meaningful contractual guarantees from TDIC to allow independent monitoring of workers' rights, but even the Agency's contract lacks guarantees or provisions allowing it to enforce workers' rights.
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.
"Still a lot more to do but this is the impact of electing an environmentalist like Lula over a right-wing populist like Bolsonaro," said one observer.
Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest decreased by 68% this April compared with last year, according to preliminary government data published Friday.
The finding reflects positively on the administration of leftist Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has vowed to make the destruction of the crucial ecosystem "a thing of the past."
Official data from space research agency INPE showed that 328.71 square km (126.92 square miles) were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon last month, below the historical average of 455.75 square km for the month.
That interrupted two consecutive months of higher deforestation, with land clearing so far this year now down 40.4% to 1,173 square km.
Lula's victory last October over Brazil's far-right former president, Jair Bolsonaro, was hailed as a critical step toward rescuing the Amazon from more severe and possibly irreversible damage.
Parts of the Amazon, often referred to as the "lungs of the Earth" due to its unparalleled capacity to provide oxygen and absorb planet-heating carbon dioxide, recently passed a key tipping point after Bolsonaro intensified clearcutting of the tropical rainforest during his four-year reign. Bolsonaro's regressive policy changes pushed deforestation in Brazil to a 15-year high last year, helping to drive the country's greenhouse gas emissions to their highest level in almost two decades.
Most of the deforestation that occurred under Bolsonaro was illegal, fueled by logging, mining, and agribusiness companies that were given a green light by the ex-president and often used violence to repress Indigenous forest dwellers and other environmental defenders.
During a November speech at the United Nations COP27 climate summit in Egypt—his first on the international stage after defeating Bolsonaro—Lula said that "there's no climate security for the world without a protected Amazon," roughly 60% of which is located in Brazil.
"The crimes that happened [under Bolsonaro] will now be combated," said Lula, a Workers' Party member who previously served as Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010 and took office again on January 1. "We will rebuild our enforcement capabilities and monitoring systems that were dismantled during the past four years."
"We will fight hard against illegal deforestation. We will take care of Indigenous people," said Lula, who drastically reduced both deforestation and inequality when he governed the country earlier this century. "Brazil is emerging from the cocoon to which it has been subjected for the last four years."
As Reuters noted Friday, "Experts say it is still too early to confirm a downward trend, as the annual peak in deforestation from July to September lies ahead, but see it as a positive signal after rainforest destruction rocketed in late 2022."
"There are several factors, and the change in government might indeed be one of them," Daniel Silva, a conservation specialist at WWF-Brasil, told the outlet. "The environmental agenda has been resumed, but we know time is necessary for the results to be reaped."
"The environmental agenda has been resumed, but we know time is necessary for the results to be reaped."
Friends of the Earth campaigner and author Guy Shrubsole was quicker to give Lula credit.
"Still a lot more to do but this is the impact of electing an environmentalist like Lula over a right-wing populist like Bolsonaro," tweeted Shrubsole, whose books include The Lost Rainforests of Britain and Who Owns England?
Lula has taken important steps toward fulfilling his pledge to halt deforestation by 2030, though Reuters reported that the president "has faced continued challenges since taking office as [the] environmental agency IBAMA grapples with lack of staff," one lingering consequence of his predecessor's funding cuts.
Earlier this month, Lula secured "an 80 million-pound ($100.97 million) contribution from Britain to the Amazon Fund, an initiative aimed at fighting deforestation also backed by Norway, Germany, and the United States," Reuters noted. Last month, he "resumed the recognition of Indigenous lands, reversing a Bolsonaro policy, while announcing new job openings at the environment ministry and [the] Indigenous agency FUNAI."
Research has shown that granting land tenure to Indigenous communities is associated with improved forest outcomes.
Lula fully expected to face substantial opposition from corporate interests and right-wing Brazilian legislators.
The Washington Postreported last year that "a bloc of lawmakers with ties to agriculture could try to block Lula's environmental policies and pass legislation to facilitate land-grabbing and illegal mining."
Vox also explained that "deforestation is unlikely to stop altogether once Lula takes office."
"Bolsonaro's party still dominates Congress and will likely continue supporting the cattle industry, which is behind nearly all forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon," the outlet pointed out. "The country also faces an economic crisis and fallout from mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic, and it's not clear exactly how Lula will prioritize these competing crises."
Despite scientists' warnings that it will be virtually impossible to avert the worst consequences of the climate and biodiversity crises unless the world stops felling trees to make space for cattle ranching, monocropping, and other harmful practices, global efforts to reverse deforestation by 2030 are currently behind schedule and woefully underfunded.
"These findings fly in the face of Biden's preferred framing of international politics as a 'battle between democracies and autocracies,'" says the author of a new report.
President Joe Biden claims that the United States is leading "democracies" in a fight against "autocracies" to establish a peaceful international order, but his administration approved weapons sales to nearly three-fifths of the world's authoritarian countries in 2022.
That's according to a new analysis conducted by Security Policy Reform Institute co-founder Stephen Semler and published Thursday in The Intercept.
The U.S. has been the world's largest arms dealer since the end of the Cold War. Data released in March showed that the U.S. accounted for 40% of global weapons exports from 2018 to 2022.
As Semler explained:
In general, these exports are funded through grants or sales. There are two pathways for the latter category: foreign military sales and direct commercial sales.
The U.S. government acts as an intermediary for FMS acquisitions: It buys the materiel from a company first and then delivers the goods to the foreign recipient. DCS acquisitions are more straightforward: They're the result of an agreement between a U.S. company and a foreign government. Both categories of sales require the government's approval.
Country-level data for last year's DCS authorizations was released in late April through the State Department's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. FMS figures for fiscal year 2022 were released earlier this year through the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency. According to their data, a total of 142 countries and territories bought weapons from the U.S. in 2022, for a total of $85 billion in bilateral sales.
To determine how many of those governments were democratic and how many were autocratic, Semler relied on data from the Varieties of Democracy project at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, which uses a classification system called Regimes of the World.
"Of the 84 countries codified as autocracies under the Regimes of the World system in 2022, the United States sold weapons to at least 48, or 57%, of them," Semler wrote. "The 'at least' qualifier is necessary because several factors frustrate the accurate tracking of U.S. weapons sales. The State Department's report of commercial arms sales during the fiscal year makes prodigious use of 'various' in its recipients category; as a result, the specific recipients for nearly $11 billion in weapons sales are not disclosed."
"The Regimes of the World system is just one of the several indices that measure democracy worldwide, but running the same analysis with other popular indices produces similar results," Semler observed. "For example, Freedom House listed 195 countries and for each one labeled whether it qualified as an electoral democracy in its annual Freedom in the World report. Of the 85 countries Freedom House did not designate as an electoral democracy, the United States sold weapons to 49, or 58%, of them in fiscal year 2022."
Despite the White House's lofty rhetoric, it is actively bolstering the military power of a majority of the world's authoritarian countries, from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to dozens of others, including some overlooked by researchers at the University of Gothenburg.
For instance, the Varieties of Democracy project characterizes Israel as a "liberal democracy" even though human rights groups around the world have condemned it as a decidedly anti-democratic apartheid state. Washington, meanwhile, showers Israel with $3.8 billion in military support each year, resources that the government uses to violently dispossess and frequently kill Palestinians at will.
As Semler put it Saturday in his "Speaking Security" newsletter, "These findings fly in the face of Biden's preferred framing of international politics as a "battle between democracies and autocracies."
The president's narrative "lends itself more to a self-righteous foreign policy than an honest or productive one," Semler argued. "Dividing the world between democratic and autocratic countries—in the spirit of 'with us or against us'—makes conflict more likely and has had a chilling effect on calls for diplomacy and détente. It's also harder to cooperate with the international community while insisting you're locked in an existential fight with roughly half of them."
On the heels of strike-authorization votes by American and Southwest pilots, United pilots protested at airports across the U.S. on Friday to tell management that "enough is enough."
Following what the Air Line Pilots Association called "more than four years of empty promises," 3,000 off-duty United Airlines pilots represented by the union protested at major airports across the U.S. on Friday, demanding the finalization of a contract with higher pay and humane scheduling practices.
"Thousands of United pilots are picketing coast-to-coast today to deliver management a message they cannot ignore: Enough is enough," Capt. Garth Thompson, chair of the United ALPA master executive council, said in a statement.
"United management needs to stop slow-rolling negotiations... and do the right thing for their pilots."
"We have been stuck with an antiquated scheduling system and a contract nowhere near industry-leading standards," said Thompson. "We want United to succeed as industry leaders, and every day that passes without an agreement is another day the best and brightest future aviators go elsewhere."
United pilots—joined by ALPA president Capt. Jason Ambrosi, fellow ALPA pilots, and union supporters—demonstrated in front of terminals at airports in 10 cities as well as outside the company's flight training center in Denver.
Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president Sara Nelson was among those who participated in an act of solidarity.
"I am proud to stand here today to send United Airlines management a message that the airline's pilots have the full backing of their international union in their fight for the contract they have earned," said Ambrosi, who leads the 69,000-member union and joined a picket line in Chicago. "United management needs to stop slow-rolling negotiations that have dragged into their fifth year and do the right thing for their pilots."
Management has failed "to recognize the value pilots bring to the overall success of the airline," ALPA said. "United pilots were there for customers during one of the worst times for travel in recent history, and they also helped United Airlines emerge from the pandemic stronger than before."
Thompson, who called Friday's nationwide informational picket a "resounding success," stressed that "United pilots will always be there for our customers."
"Unfortunately," he added, "the same cannot be said about management, who seems to think that a last-minute cancellation of a United pilot's scheduled day off, or abrupt trip reassignments that extend into planned days off, is acceptable for a United pilot's family."
"This old pilot contract impacts our ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance," Thompson continued. "United pilots will deal with this adversity in our usual professional and safe manner. We will continue to work in 2023 despite staffing shortages in Air Traffic Control facilities, aggressive summer schedules, capacity constraints, and weather." However, he noted, "United pilots want the company and the public to know that the bold 'United Next' growth plans cannot work without an updated pilot contract."
"This old pilot contract impacts our ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance."
The action by United pilots comes in the wake of a pair of successful strike-authorization votes by pilots at other airlines.
On May 1, 95% of American Airlines pilots voted to authorize a strike. (Of the airline's 15,000 pilots, 96% participated, with 99% expressing support for a possible strike).
"We will strike if necessary to secure the industry-leading contract that our pilots have earned and deserve—a contract that will position American Airlines for success," said Capt. Ed Sicher, president of the Allied Pilots Association. "Our pilots' resolve is unmistakable. We will not be deterred from our goal of an industry-leading contract."
"The strike-authorization vote is one of several steps APA has taken to prepare for any eventuality and use all legal avenues available to us for contract improvement and resolution," Sicher noted. "The best outcome is for APA and management to agree on an industry-leading contract—achieved through good-faith bargaining—benefiting our pilots, American Airlines, and the passengers we serve."
On Thursday, 97% of Southwest pilots voted to authorize a strike. (Of the airline's 10,000-plus pilots, 98% participated, with 99% expressing support for a possible strike).
"This is a historic day, not only for our pilots but for Southwest Airlines," said Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. "The lack of leadership and the unwillingness to address the failures of our organization have led us to this point. Our pilots are tired of apologizing to our passengers."
Murray and other union leaders have attributed Southwest's meltdown last winter to executives' yearslong refusal to invest in much-needed technological upgrades despite benefiting from billions of dollars in federal aid during the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We want our passengers to understand that we do not take this path lightly," Murray said Thursday. "We want our customers to be prepared for the path ahead and make arrangements on other carriers so that their plans through the summer and fall are not disrupted."
United's 14,000 pilots could be next in line to vote on strike authorization.
As The Associated Pressreported Saturday, "Pilots at all three carriers are looking to match or beat the deal that Delta Air Lines reached with its pilots earlier this year, which raised pay rates by 34% over four years."
"United has proposed to match the Delta increase, but that might not be enough for a deal," AP observed. Citing Thompson, the outlet noted that "discussion about wages has been held up while the two sides negotiate over scheduling, including the union’s wish to limit United's ability to make pilots work on their days off."
The nation's pilots "are unlikely to strike anytime soon, however," AP reported. "Federal law makes it very difficult for unions to conduct strikes in the airline industry, and the last walkout at a U.S. carrier was more than a decade ago."
"Under U.S. law, airline and railroad workers can't legally strike, and companies can't lock them out, until federal mediators determine that further negotiations are pointless," the outlet explained. It continued:
The National Mediation Board rarely declares a dead end to bargaining, and even if it does, there is a no-strikes "cooling-off" period during which the White House and Congress can block a walkout. That's what President Bill Clinton did minutes after pilots began striking against American in 1997. In December, President Joe Biden signed a bill that Congress passed to impose contract terms on freight railroad workers, ending a strike threat.
Regardless of the legal hurdles to a walkout, unions believe that strike votes give them leverage during bargaining, and they have become more common. A shortage of pilots is also putting those unions in particularly strong bargaining position.
Although Congress is highly unlikely to permit an airline strike, disgruntled pilots could still cause disruption through "work to rule," Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University, told AP.
"They could say, 'We're not working any overtime,'" said Wheaton. "I don't anticipate the pilots trying to screw up travel for everybody intentionally, but bargaining is about leverage and power... having the ability to do that can be a negotiating tactic."