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Guggenheim Abu Dhabi: Human Rights Watch Criticizes Workers’ Rights Agreement

Early Rendering of Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

My previous post—describing the detailed written agreement protecting the rights of construction workers at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi—was headlined: Guggenheim’s Armstrong Does It Right.

But today’s post critiquing the agreement on the website of Human Rights Watch (HRW) could have been entitled: “Guggenheim’s Armstrong Does It Wrong.”

The international watchdog group finds fault with the landmark Employment Practices Policy (EPP) just published by Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and
Investment Company (TDIC). The EPP will govern not only construction of the Guggenheim’s new satellite museum but also that of other new cultural facilities being overseen by TDIC on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island.

HRW’s headline for its analysis of the EPP was:

Guggenheim’s Labor Provisions Need Enforcement: Museum Promises to Prevent Migrant Worker Abuse, but Fee Reimbursement, Independent Monitoring Lacking

While acknowledging that “the Guggenheim’s public announcement is an important affirmation of the
private sector’s role in protecting worker rights,” Sarah Leah
, Middle East director at HRW, was far from satisfied:

The agreement
is incomplete and lacks the monitoring and penalties that will turn
promises into real protection.

Specifically, the watchdog group asserts:

The provisions…notably lack a
requirement for contractors to reimburse workers for huge recruitment
fees that effectively force laborers to remain on the job until the fees
are repaid. The announcement also lacked provisions for independent,
third-party monitoring as well as any provisions that address worker
rights to collective bargaining and a fair minimum wage.

I applaud HRW for its vigilance on the important issue
of the exploitation of migrant workers. But its critique, in this instance,
may turn out to be an illustration of the adage, “No good deed goes

While it is true, as HRW states, that there are no “explicit provisions” requiring reimbursement of workers’ recruitment fees, the released summary of the EPP does explicitly state that workers must not be charged such fees:

The contractor shall be solely liable for and shall pay all recruitment fees for
an employee. No one involved in the construction of TDIC’s projects shall
utilise the service of any agent or agency charging an employee any
recruitment fee.

Anyone who peruses the full 39-page text of the EPP cannot fail to be impressed by its rigorous delineation of rules for appropriate working conditions and employment practices. Americans may also be a little horrified that some things that we regard as givens (i.e., “Employees shall be provided with drinking water and toilets”) don’t go without saying. One nice Middle Eastern touch in the policy guidelines: “The Contractor shall provide Employees with prayer rooms.”

There are detailed provisions for the Guggenheim, the TDIC and the United Arab Emirates to monitor compliance with the agreement. But it’s true, as HRW states, that nothing is mentioned about collective bargaining or a “fair minimum wage” for the construction workers. The EPP does not mention anything about “independent third-party monitoring.” But it may be reasonable to expect that the Guggenheim, having already shown a serious concern for the treatment of workers on its project, will monitor its site closely.

It is also true, as HRW has noted, that the EPP mentions nothing about collective bargaining or a fair minimum wage for construction workers. Nevertheless, it seems to me that tremendous progress has been made in changing the expectation of the exploitation of migrant works in the United Arab Emirates to an expectation of fair and humane treatment—a condition that (we can only hope) may become infectious, providing a template for future development.

One thing that the Guggenheim’s director, Richard Armstrong, is unlikely to deliver on, however, is his prediction (made during a 2009 CultureGrrl interview) that the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi facility would open in 2012-13, with groundbreaking in autumn 2009.

This morning, I asked Eleanor Goldhar, the Guggenheim’s deputy director and chief of global communications, for an update on the progress (or lack thereof) on the Abu Dhabi project. She informed me that there’s been “no official groundbreaking” and that Frank Gehry‘s final design is “to be announced later this year or early 2011.” The projected completion date is has been put off to late 2013 or early 2014 and the museum’s opening is currently slated for late 2013 to early 2014.

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