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Uneasy in Abu Dhabi: Will UAE Eschew Past Construction Worker Abuses in New Museum Projects?

Unmentioned in the excitement over the four breathtakingly ambitious starchitect museums being planned for Abu Dhabi are the serious human rights questions recently raised about construction workers’ conditions in the United Arab Emirates.
In a report released last November, Human Rights Watch, an an independent, nongovernmental watchdog organization, charged:
As the United Arab Emirates experiences one of the world’s largest construction booms, its government has failed to stop employers from seriously abusing the rights of the country’s half million migrant construction workers….These abuses include unpaid or extremely low wages, several years of indebtedness to recruitment agencies for fees that UAE law says only employers should pay, the withholding of employees’ passports, and hazardous working conditions that result in apparently high rates of death and injury….
The UAE is currently undergoing a dramatic construction boom, and nearly all of the more than 500,000 construction workers in the country are migrants, mostly from South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The country’s 2,738,000 migrant workers make up 95% of the country’s workforce.
“Hundreds of gleaming towers have risen on the backs of migrants working in highly exploitative conditions,” said [Sarah Leah] Whitson [HRW’s Middle East director].

Soon after HRW communicated its findings and recommendations to the UAE, its prime minister ordered the labor minister to institute reforms. Whitson remained skeptical:
We hope that the government’s new promise to enforce its labor laws does not share the same fate as its broken promise to legalize trade unions.
What steps have the Guggenheim and the Louvre taken to insure that the new satellite museums bearing their names will not be built “on the backs of migrants working in highly exploitative conditions”?
Here’s what Guggenheim spokesperson Betsy Ennis answered when I asked that question:
You should contact TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company) since it is an Abu Dhabi legal issue. I have heard, however, that they are revising the laws.
And then I asked:
Am I correct in understanding that the Guggenheim is leaving the details about construction-worker conditions up to TDIC, and that the Guggenheim will not be monitoring or assessing the worker situation independently?
Ennis’ reply:
Our negotiations and agreements with Abu Dhabi are confidential and governed by strict confidentiality agreements.
This did little to relieve my Abu Dhabi anxiety, so I took Betsy’s advice and contacted Bassem Terkawi, public relations manager of TDIC.
Terkawi’s e-mailed response:
TDIC is committed to best practices in every aspect in which it operates and requires its partners to adhere to a code of best practices, including the treatment of overseas workers.
Two months ago, the UAE published a draft of a new labor law intended to address the human rights concerns.
Here’s what HRW had to say about that on March 25:
The United Arab Emirates’ proposed labor law falls far short of international standards for workers’ rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The law should be revised to protect workers’ rights to organize, bargain collectively and strike, and to cover excluded groups such as domestic workers.
The UAE’s Labor Minister Ali Al Kaabi promptly derided this critique as “insane and illogical,” according to a report in Middle East Times, quoting from the Al Khaleej daily.
If the museums are indifferent to these vexing human rights issues, perhaps the architects, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando and Zaha Hadid, should voice strong concern about how their plans will be realized on Saadiyat Island.

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