How Migrant Workers Literally Pay To Build Architecture

Designers, architects, consultants, and engineers can’t keep turning a blind eye to the mistreatment of the people who build their work.

How Migrant Workers Literally Pay To Build Architecture
[Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images]

The last two sentences of a new report on human rights abuses of migrant workers in the Arabian Gulf hit the hardest: “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it. I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it.”


The now-infamous quote, from the late Zaha Hadid who was talking about migrant workers on a project in Qatar, spoke to an uncomfortable truth about the complexity of the global construction industry–and its role in the systematic abuse of workers in the Gulf region, which draws millions of people from South Asian countries with the lure of work on skyscrapers, arenas, and other construction projects.

“We wanted to include that [quote] because it really strikingly demonstrates the feeling that I think a lot of stakeholders have, including architects,” says David Segall, a policy analyst and coauthor of the new report alongside Sarah Labowitz. “Which is . . . what really can I do?”

[Photo: David Segall]
Segall and Labowitz spent 18 months compiling their report, published this week by the Center for Business and Human Rights at NYU’s Stern School of Business. They spoke with workers, recruitment agents, contractors, clients, and more. What they uncovered was a startling globe-crossing network in which poor workers actually end up paying to be recruited, and more.

It’s a “perverse” system, they write. Say you’re a poor worker in a rural town in Bangladesh, looking to get construction work abroad in a Gulf country. Just to get recruited, you might end up paying as much as $5,200 in fees to a multi-tiered network of recruiters and sub-agents. (The actual cost of recruiting you? About $400-$650.) Then there are the other costs you have to pay, from testing fees to processing your documents. You might be charged 50% more for your airline ticket by agents. When you finally get to work, you might already owe a year’s worth of wages. You have literally paid for the privilege of working. All of this exacerbates the systematic human rights abuses that take place at work–which have been well-documented over the years.

“We were surprised by the extent to which these practices are near-universal in the industry,” Segall says. When a construction company bids on a project in the Gulf, it obviously wants to submit a very low bid to stay competitive. Labor can account for as much as 35% of a bid, so companies are under a lot of pressure to cut costs on recruiting workers. That pressure has given birth to the system today, where the poorest people involved in a project are paying for the price cuts incurred by the richest. Segall and Labowitz argue for a model where the responsibility of paying recruitment fees–rather than passing them on to the workers–is shared across construction companies, clients, the governments of the Gulf countries, and the countries that send workers.

[Photo: Matthew Ashton/AMA/Getty Images]
That can include architects, Segall says. Though they might not have a contractual relationship with the contractor on their project, their voices do carry weight. Their services are in demand, and they can engage with sponsors, construction companies, and governments, to make the issue a focus on their projects. Zaha Hadid, for instance, wielded a cultural power in her visibility on the global stage. While architects may not be able to control every subcontractor, they do have the power to be informed and vocal about the systemic abuse of the people who build their designs.


“In addition to that, I think it’s incumbent on stakeholders, from project management consultants and architects to others, to just speak out,” he says. “Prominent architects really have a voice on the global stage, especially in the Gulf where their work is really prized.”

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.