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Sarkozy Kicks Off Louvre Abu Dhabi Construction; Human Rights Watch Disapproves (again)

Rendering of Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi
Copyright Ateliers Jean Nouvel

Just in time for French President Nicolas Sarkozy‘s visit today to participate in a ceremony marking the start of construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Human Rights Watch has published a new 80-page report decrying the “exploitation of migrant workers on Saadiyat Island.” A Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and other cultural facilities are also planned for that site, as well as a New York University liberal arts campus.

I first reported on HRW’s statements about this issue two years ago, here. A press release summarizing last week’s 80-page report is here.

According to HRW’s latest allegations:

Thousands of South Asian migrant workers building a US$27 billion island development in the United Arab Emirates face severe exploitation
and abuse, in some cases amounting to forced labor. Labor-supply agencies, construction
companies, and repressive laws are responsible for the abuse….

The UAE government and the authorities responsible for developing Saadiyat Island have failed to tackle the root causes of worker abuse: unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages, and a sponsorship
system that gives an employer virtually complete power over his workers….

Research on Saadiyat Island did show that authorities have taken some positive steps. Although workers’ accommodations were still under construction when Human Rights Watch visited the island, they appeared to be relatively hygienic and not overcrowded. TDIC, the government-owned company overseeing the island’s development, has sought contractual guarantees from construction companies that they will not confiscate workers’ passports, use forced labor, or commit other abuses.

Reuters News Agency sought the U.A.E.’s side of the story. Andrew Hammond reports:

The Tourism Development & Investment Company, which is in charge of the island’s development, said construction had not yet begun and special care was being taken over workers’ welfare. A statement said contractors were obliged not to seize passports and
encouraged to pay workers promptly. It said it would implement a Human Rights Watch suggestion to provide copies of contracts in the language of the workers, not only Arabic and English.

And the Guggenheim last week sent me this response to HRW’s latest report:

We are reviewing the report with care and will discuss the issues that HRW has raised with our partner in Abu Dhabi—the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC)….We remain committed to working with TDIC to protect the rights of workers, and to provide a safe and just working environment to the people who will build the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum….

As we have discussed with Human Rights Watch and as is acknowledged in the report, many of the issues are addressed by existing United Arab Emirates laws and statutes. The Guggenheim Foundation’s agreement with TDIC requires both TDIC and the contractors it hires to comply with those laws.

In the report, HRW writes that “Of the institutions that discussed workers’ rights with us, the Guggenheim and the French Museum Agency said that they felt hampered by pressure from TDIC to remain silent on the issue.” It is absolutely incorrect to make this statement regarding the Guggenheim Foundation’s discussions with HRW. No such statement was made, nor was this sentiment implied in any discussion with, or other form of communication from, the Guggenheim.

Protecting the rights of workers who will be working on the construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum is, and continues to be, a serious topic of conversation with TDIC.

A preview of the project, including works from the Louvre and other French national museums, and the first acquisitions for the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s own collection, opened today at the Emirates Palace hotel. For more information about the preview and its artworks, go here.

My French blogging buddy, Didier Rykner of the Art Tribune, has published a list (scroll down) of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s recently appointed acquisition committee, which includes Pierre Rosenberg, former director of the Louvre.

I also commend to you Charles Bremner‘s report yesterday in the U.K.’s Times about French attitudes towards the Louvre Abu Dhabi and about Sarkozy’s other business during his trip—“opening a naval and air force base in Abu Dhabi” and “desperately hoping to convince Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan to buy the Rafale jet fighter. The very expensive new-generation aircraft…has so far failed to win a single export order.”

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