Human rights report angers Arab media
Journalists at a Human Rights Watch press conference in Abu Dhabi reacted explosively to the watchdog’s report of labor abuse at Saadiyat Island. But the authority insists its report is accurate.
May 19, 2009 5:05 by Dana El Baltaji
Worker exploitation such as withheld wages, passport confiscation and employee-paid recruitment fees are an ongoing problem at Saadiyat Island, or “the Island of Happiness” in Arabic, says Human Rights Watch (HRW). The report, titled “UAE: Exploitations of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi,” was released on Tuesday at a press conference in Abu Dhabi.
It claims the Tourism Development & Investment Company’s (TDIC) abuse of workers “amounts to forced labor. Violations against foreign workers are likely to continue in a context where workers are generally not aware of their rights and are afraid of expressing grievances, independent and effective monitoring is lacking, and unions and workers’ rights NGOs do not exist.”
HRW also showed that workers who wish to lodge complaints against their employer are unable to do so due to logistical constraints: the only day workers can lodge complaints is on Friday, their day-off. However, government offices are closed on Friday.
The watchdog’s findings, however, were not well received by the Arabic media. Emirati and Egyptian journalists routinely interrupted the conference to challenge the report’s credibility and accuse the authority of taking the abuses out of context.
They also criticized HRW for revealing its findings in English first, and later in Arabic, with one journalist proclaiming that it showed the organization’s true colors and ‘hidden agenda’.
The commotion drove HRW to break-up the press conference sooner than expected, and asked journalists to address the director and researchers individually.
Kipp asked Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HWR Middle East and North Africa, why the report was received so badly:
“Somehow people think they need to defend the country from criticism and attack, which is particularly unfortunate from journalists whose role is to be independent on the circumstances in the ground. And those who are most concerned about the country should be the most blunt and honest about recognizing the problems.”
“And in fact, I don’t think the Ministry of Labor would dispute any of the facts in our reports. In our meetings with the Ministry of Labor, and in our meetings with TDIC, and in our meetings with any other of these international institutions, nobody has questioned the facts of these ongoing abuses,” she said.
Samer Muscati, a researcher at HRW, added that perhaps the recent reports of human rights abuses in Dubai and Abu Dhabi may have fueled the Arab media’s reaction to the watchdog’s findings.
Soon after the conference, TDIC published a response to the report in WAM, the UAE’s official news agency, and accused HRW of misleading facts and using questionable methodologies: “The report not only neglects TDIC’s policies, procedures and actions related to worker welfare, but also makes misleading assertions and false assumptions due to HRW’s questionable methodology and flawed research.”
This is getting interesting.