Kafala, the labour system prevalent across the Gulf, Jordan and Lebanon, requires migrant workers to work with the kafeel or sponsor who gives them employment for the period of their contract. Workers are not permitted to leave the country or change employment without written permission from the kafeel. In Qatar, they even have to pay fees to obtain an exit visa.
There is similar international pressure in the UAE, where groups of activists, including the Gulf Labour Coalition, have urged the government to make a smaller, if not less significant, moves towards ending its exploitative employment practices by giving workers a one-time payment for the hefty recruitment fees they pay to travel to and work in the country.
A new report filed by an activist group called the Gulf Labour Coalition has called on the Abu Dhabi-based Tourism Development and Investment Company, which it calls the “master developer” of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, to help workers to pay off the debts they incurred for working on the project.
Workers travelling to the Gulf often take loans on their land in their home countries to pay these fees, which can go up to Rs 1 lakh in India, and end up spending the two-year duration of their visa repaying that debt. If they are unable to repay in time, some even lose their property. Due to this threat, they are unable to leave whether or not their working conditions are exploitative.
Saadiyat, an island conceived of in 2004 as a grand cultural hub in Abu Dhabi, will have several museums, educational institutions and including the first international outposts of the Louvre in France and the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation and Museum in New York. These establishments, like many others in the Gulf, are being built by migrant labourers, many of whom are from South Asia.
The Gulf Labour Coalition is formed of a group of artists who have been campaigning for migrant construction workers to be treated with dignity. Members of the coalition recently surveyed conditions at the housing of builders working on two sites, the Guggenheim and the Louvre.
While the living conditions are nominally good in the camp, workers are isolated from the city. The camp is not visible even from the highway and is surrounded by security fences. There are no workers unions, many of them are still paying off loans, and they are frequently moved from place to place.
Apart from helping workers pay their sponsorship debts, if the report is implemented, it could improve their conditions across the board. It asks that the workers on the Saadiyat project, which is estimated to take about 20 years to build, be integrated into the final city.
“On Saadiyat, we are looking at the future of the conditions of migrant labour in the UAE,” Ashok Sukumaran, co-founder of Indian artists collective CAMP, wrote in an email to Scroll.in. “And this future was scary-looking, from our visit. So we should make it clear that jail-like exclusion and segregation of worker cities, even if they are nice and clean on the inside, are not an ideal model to follow.”
Sukumaran, who is associated with Gulf Labour, was a part of the group that visited Saadiyat for this report. He is now working with several organisations in India and across South Asia to increase awareness about the recruitment process in the source countries, and to urge the governments of these countries to take note of these issues.
The report also asks for recruitment fees to be set at a reasonable level, that organised workers groups be allowed to communicate their concerns to the management, and for the Tourism Development and Investment Company to disseminate detailed information about its recruitment process.
“So far the response to recruitment debt issues from the UAE end, including TDIC…in particular has been that recruitment debt is a ‘home countries’ problem and cannot be solved in the UAE,” he added.
Artists from around the world have threatened to boycott the new museums by not contributing their art once it finally opens. In February, protesters from G.U.L.F., a group associated with the Gulf Labour Coalition, stormed the Guggenheim Museum in New York and flung pamphlets at visitors, asking that the museum examine the conditions in which its Abu Dhabi wing was being built.
“The broader picture is that we have an opportunity here to question and reform the kafala or sponsored visa system, across many gulf countries including Qatar as has been recently in the news,” Sukumaran added. “Migrant worker populations, the vast majority of the population [in the United Arab Emirates] anyway, should have full access and rights to the cities that they are building.”