Saudi Arabia is planning a futuristic city of clean energy and flying taxis. Don't build it with abusive labor practices

An advertisement for Saudi Arabia's city of NEOM

Michael Eisner, (@Mikeyeis) General Counsel of Democracy for the Arab World Now, and Mustafa Qadri (@mustafa_qadri) is founder and Executive Director of Equidem, a specialist labor rights consultancy and charity. The views expressed here are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is planning a $500 billion model city in the desert of northwest Saudi Arabia. Built from scratch, NEOM will purportedly be powered by clean energy, run by artificial intelligence, enhanced by machine learning, serviced by robot maids and flying taxis, and illuminated every night by a giant artificial moon.

Michael Eisner
Mustafa Qadri
History suggests, 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 wages, confiscation 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."