Confiscation of passports, unpayable debt, contracts which change between departure and arrival, being deadlocked to one employer, tough working conditions, bans on trade unions and inhumane living conditions. This is reality for many of the thousand migrant workers who each year travel to Dubai in search of a job in the construction business, which they thought would be the road to a better life.
Partners with a tainted human rights reputation
Two of Ramboll's partners at several construction projects in Dubai are Arabtec Construction and Al Habtoor Leighton. These two are among the major construction companies in the region and employ thousands of migrant workers. Both companies have been harshly criticised for the terms under which migrant workers are hired.
The workers have their passport confiscated and are paid much less by Arabtec Construction than promised, according to surveys by DanWatch and Human Rights Watch. The workers cannot do anything since, according to the legislation, workers are not allowed to form trade unions or seek job elsewhere without consent from the employer. During a strike last month (January 2011) 3,000 Arabtec employees demanded higher wages. 70 were arrested, and the rest were given the choice of returning to work or leaving the country, writes the newspaper The National.
”As a migrant worker, when you experience all these conditions and have incurred massive debt to get to Dubai to get a job, your human rights are violated. It is modern slavery. It exists in all Arabic countries, but is extreme in the Gulf states. Serious violations of human rights take place here”, says Mu'ayyad Mehyar, project manager at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.
Some migrants have still not reduced their debt after several years of work. On the contrary, many experience growing debt. After four years the debt of 32-year-old Indian Kulandavel, who earned DKK 900-1,000 (approx. 130 euro) per month working for Arabtec Construction, grew from DKK 15,000 to 36,000. ”They cancelled my contract because there was no work, and I have received no compensation”, says Kulandavel and continues: ”You cannot negotiate or discuss with Arabtec. We workers have no rights”.
”The debt from back home, the sponsor system and the dependence on the employer that it creates, and especially the confiscation of passports – increase the likelihood of migrant workers ending in forced labour from which they cannot escape. And forced labour is the worst kind of work there is”, says Caroline O'Reilly, head of ILO's programme against forced labour.
The social responsibility of Ramboll
According to Ramboll, social responsibility is paramount when the company assesses which companies to collaborate with at construction projects throughout the world. Among other things, Ramboll has developed a Code of Conduct and a Code of Practice in the effort towards becoming socially responsible, and the documents state that the rules therein apply to everyone that Ramboll collaborates with.
”We screen all companies at building projects in which we participate, as a precautionary measure against corruption risks and conflicts of interest, which for many years have been the main problem in our business”, says Kim Bergholt, head of CSR in Ramboll Group.
Ramboll does not look at human rights violations when it assesses its partners thought the spectacles of spectacles of social responsibility. ”We do not examine the working conditions that our partners provide their employees. Only if it is part of the contract with our clients”, says Kim Bergholt. ”But we always react if there are conditions in our projects that we just cannot vouch for, and I definitely think the DanWatch survey gives opportunity to further consideration on whether to include such conditions in our preliminary screenings”.
”We cannot comment on specific situations. In the contracts with our client [the building owners] we are bound by a confidentiality agreement, which is common practice”, says Kim Bergholt, who tells that Ramboll in several instances has denounced clients in Denmark as well as abroad.
However, Ramboll does not wish to mention instances where they denounced their partners or to comment on whether they have reacted on the situation of migrant workers at construction sites in Dubai.
As for the surveys on the violations of the migrant workers' rights, Kim Bergholt answers: ”We are not familiar with the criticism of Arabtec Construction and Al Habtoor Leighton, so it is too early to say whether we are going to respond to it.”
”But right now we are working towards including human rights violations, among other things, in the assessment of our collaborators. Hopefully we can do this by the end of next year”, Kim Bergholt says.
”When we react, it is towards our client, and then it is the customer who must act. It is difficult for us to place demands upon customers that we are not in contract with. They are a leg away. We have no way of imposing sanctions or to place demands, but we do make ourselves available for help. And, naturally, in the end we must consider the continued partnership”, says Kim Bergholt.
What can be expected?
”When a violation is reported at a client firm, the consultancy firm must ensure that the violation is not repeated, and that the victims are compensated”, says Sune Skadegaard, expert in corporate social responsibility and Senior Partner in Global CSR. ”A company's social responsibility applies to all of its relations; that is, suppliers, customers and other partners. If there is a relation, which there is in the case of collaborators in a construction project, then the company also has a responsibility here”.
Mads Øvlisen, Chairman of the Danish Council on Corporate Social Responsibility, shares this view and believes that companies in the consultancy business have a social responsibility to their customers and partners: ”There certainly is a moral element, and I myself would find it natural that the companies in principle act socially responsible at the same level as in the supply chain and do not bend the ethics”, says Mads Øvlisen.
”It is important, for instance when planning or constructing, creating an urban plan, etc., that you establish a proper dialogue with a broad forum of local stakeholders, a multi-stakeholder forum, and not just lean against a ruling class. And there ought to be clear and well-known ways for these groups to file their complaints before the company. Furthermore, one should also live up to the principles of the UN Global Compact”, says Mads Øvlisen.