Yesterday Human Rights Watch released a damning new report on worker's conditions at the Abu Dhabi satellites of the Louvre, the Guggenheim Museum, and NYU. According to the monitoring agency, some construction workers for the showpiece projects on the 600-acre Saadiyat Island are toiling away under conditions of forced labor, with employers withholding wages and benefits, confiscating passports, and housing them in abysmal accommodation, like 27 workers to a two-bedroom apartment. In two separate cases documented in 2013, U.A.E. authorities arbitrarily deported hundreds of striking workers.
Sadly, this latest report come as no surprise: this is the third such report about dire working conditions on Saadiyat Island that Human Rights Watch has issued. The group has never been granted access to the construction site, but managed to speak with 116 current and former employees. (There are an estimated five million low-paid migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates.) Even though the projects in question are being built for celebrated cultural institutions, and designed by some of the world's most famous architects—Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim, Jean Nouvel designed the Louvre, and Rafael Viñoly designed the NYU campus— workers on the sites have been exploited since at least 2006, when the building began.
Contractors hired by the project's government-backed developer still demand exorbitant recruiting fees from migrant workers coming from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, despite the fact that the U.A.E has changed its labor laws and can revoke the licenses of agents who charge such fees. Many workers are still shelling out thousands of dollars (often borrowed from their employers or other lenders at usurious rates) for the privilege of working in egregious conditions, and are then forbidden from leaving until they repay the fees, like indentured servants.
There has been some progress since the last report, Human Rights Watch concedes, but not nearly enough. "NYU, the Louvre, and the Guggenheim should surely understand by now that they can't blindly accept the UAE authorities' assurances that workers' rights are being respected," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. "They need to exert their influence much more forcefully and demand much more in return for their presence on Saadiyat Island."
For their part, the government-backed Tourism Development and Investment Company quickly rejected the findings of the report.
· UAE: Abuses at NYU, Louvre, Guggenheim Project [Human Rights Watch]
· Museums and Universities Are Using Forced Labor to Build in Abu Dhabi [Gizmodo]
· All Saadiyat Island coverage [Curbed National]