Image of migrant construction workers working on a building site

Survey of UAE construction firms raises serious doubts over worker welfare at University of Birmingham Dubai

A detailed report from The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has concluded that the overwhelming majority of construction companies operating in Qatar and UAE do so with disregard for workers’ welfare.

The discovery of industry-wide poor practice, detailed in On Shaky Ground: Migrant workers’ rights in Qatar and UAE construction calls into question the ability of the University of Birmingham to ensure its new £100 million Dubai campus will not be built, at least in part, by migrant workers experiencing a range of exploitative practices, such as late or no payment of wages, restrictions on their freedom to change jobs, heat stress, and dangerous living conditions.

Lack of action to secure migrant workers’ rights

In 2018, BHRRC surveyed 49 construction companies operating in Qatar and the UAE. Of these companies, only 14 responded. Thirty-five companies (71%) chose did not respond.

BHRRC analysed the 14 survey responses it did receive, along with public disclosures from all 49 companies, to produce the report. It found:

  • Just 39% of companies have a public commitment to human rights.
  • Only three companies (Besix, Multiplex and Vinci/QDVC) explained how they check subcontractors pay workers on time and in full.
  • No companies report an explicit policy for protecting workers from heat stress.
  • In 2017 and 2018, the Resource Centre recorded 17 public allegations of labour rights abuse by construction companies in the Gulf, impacting more than 12,000 workers.
    • Most allegations concerned late or non-payment of workers’ wages (71%),
    • restricting freedom of movement by withholding passports and failing to renew workers’ visas (76%),
    • and hazardous living conditions (41%)…
    • There were four cases of hazardous conditions causing worker deaths and five of health and safety violations
    • The report states: “These public allegations are not exceptional cases. The lack of civic and press freedoms in the region severely limit the ability of rights groups and journalists to catalogue and report on the full extent of migrant worker abuse in the construction sector.”

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director at BHRRC, said:

“After much fanfare about labour reforms, the vast majority of construction companies appear to lack any effective action to secure migrant workers’ rights, while a tiny cluster of responsible companies are showing leadership.

“There needs to be urgent action from companies and governments to protect migrant workers from heat stress, late payment of wages, abuse by bosses they are legally bound to, and lack of collective bargaining rights.”

“Fortunes for the few in the Gulf can’t be built on the suffering of so many.”

Responding to serious concerns raised by local MP Preet Gill in November 2018, Professor Tim Jones, Provost and Vice-Principal at University of Birmingham its tendering process for the Dubai campus, was “heavily weighted around worker welfare”, with “mandatory questions around approaches to construction worker camp inspections and regular monitoring of welfare and conditions, as well as assurance around their supply chain and sub-contractors.”

Endemic problems pose a challenge to compliance

However, given the sector-wide nature of the problems revealed by the BHRRC report, the lack of publicly available information about the nature of the assurances the University has received and how they will be independently verified, it remains unclear whether it will even be possible to build the new Dubai campus without serious worker exploitation.

The lack of independent scrutiny of working conditions due to trade unions being illegal in Dubai means that serious issues remain over whether the assurances the University received from its contractors, in particular the use of exploitative agencies. Given this context it remains hard to see how the University of Birmingham will be able to prevent the exploitation of workers building during the phase 2 expansion of the Dubai campus.

A spokesperson for Birmingham UCU said:

“BHRRC’s report powerfully highlights that abuse of migrant workers’ is endemic within the UAE construction industry, in spite of the prevailing narrative that we are told about working conditions getting better in the country.

“BHRRC’s report has shown that the majority of construction companies operating in the UAE are doing so with complete disregard for migrant workers’ rights. In light of this situation and the large-scale nature of the £100 million Dubai campus, it is hard to believe that the project will be free from exploitative practices described by BHRRC.

“We once again call on the University to meet with us and the other recognised trade unions to discuss the serious concerns raised by this report, as well as our ongoing concerns about staff and student safety and the protection of academic freedom on the Dubai campus.”

University ignores academic ballot to sign £100 million Dubai contract

In February 2019, the University of was accused of putting profit before principle when it announced the second phase of its controversial Dubai campus would be built by the TECOM group. TECOM is a subsidiary of Dubai Holding LLC, is majority owned by the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and is responsible for major domestic infrastructure projects in a country where Human Rights Watch notes “Migrant construction workers face serious exploitation”.

In November 2018, Birmingham UCU members voted unanimously to support an academic boycott of the University of Birmingham’s Dubai campus. Members voted for the boycott after the University repeatedly refused to engage with us over serious concerns about staff and student safety, academic freedom and the welfare of the migrant construction workforce that is expected to build the new campus. To date, the University has refused to meaningfully engage with UCU and the other recognised trade unions over the Dubai campus.

Image credit: Image taken from the On Shaky Ground: Migrant Workers’ Rights in Qatar & UAE Construction report

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