, though, that the tens of thousands of migrant workers
who build NEOM will experience few of the upsides of the promised future city or escape the exploitation endured by millions
of other migrant workers already toiling in Saudi Arabia. If the large multinational businesses contracted to develop NEOM want to avoid complicity in Saudi's systemic exploitation of migrant workers, they will have to put in place policies and practices that effectively safeguard their workers' rights.
As advertised in a slick interactive website,
NEOM represents a fantastic vision, a booming metropolis without cars or streets or carbon emissions, and with the feel of a small community in which all essential daily services, such as schools, parks and offices, are within a five-minute walk
of all residents. By 2030, the City will become, according to Saudi planners, home to one million people
from all over the world
in a land area nearly 34 times the size of New York City.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have a grim record
when it comes to the treatment of migrant workers who have built their cities. These workers, most of whom hail from South Asia, often borrow to pay large recruiter fees
and find themselves
before their first day of work in debt, which they spend the first few years of their employment simply paying off. Under the exploitative sponsorship system known as kafala,
migrant workers often have their passports confiscated
by employers who subsequently exercise veto power over their workers' decisions to change jobs or even leave the country. Working conditions
for construction workers are often particularly brutal, with long work hours on dangerous work sites in boiling hot temperatures.
In the face of international pressure to stem abuses against migrant workers, the Saudi government has periodically introduced labor reforms, most recently in March 2021
. According to a statement
by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, the initiative was intended to "enhance the contractual relationship between workers and employers" and establish an "attractive" job market that would put it "on par with similar international markets."
But the reforms have always been severely limited,
leaving out large segments of the migrant worker population, and not addressing key conditions that have enabled worker abuses, such as the ban on collective bargaining.
More importantly, Saudi Arabia has failed
to rigorously enforce its reforms. Indeed, despite previous labor reforms
intended to prohibit unpaid
of passports and dangerous working conditions
, such abuses remain rampant amongst migrant workers, too many of whom find themselves trapped in debt
and unable to leave the country, living in conditions that amount to modern slavery.
Equidem has found that the Covid pandemic has only worsened the situation
, magnifying the dangers of close-quartered living conditions and leading many companies to fire workers abruptly or stop paying workers who continue on the job.
NEOM's workers might be even more vulnerable than their counterparts in the rest of Saudi. The model city is the brainchild
of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who unveiled plans for the new city with a dazzling promotional video
at the "Davos in the Desert" conference in Riyadh in October 2017, and who, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, is said to have referred to NEOM as his "pyramids."