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Guardian Exposé: Substandard Conditions Reportedly Persist for Some Abu Dhabi Construction Workers (plus Guggenheim’s, TDIC’s reactions) UPDATED

Kitchen in a workers' camp on Saadiyat Island Screenshot from video by the Guardian

Kitchen in a workers’ camp on Saadiyat Island
Screenshot from video by the Guardian

UPDATE: All the links in the original version of this post to documents that had been on the TDIC website (now revamped)—the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, the Employment Practices Policy, the statement on worker welfare—have changed and I’ve updated them. But I could not longer find a link to the news release on foreigners’ visits to the model Saadiyat Accommodation Village.

In this season of counting one’s blessings and showing compassion for the less fortunate, the plight of migrant workers on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, as detailed last weekend by the Guardian, warrants attention.

A highly disturbing multipart exposé this weekend by Glenn Carrick and David Batty on the Guardian‘s website suggests that many of the pledges made to protect the rights of construction workers for major projects on Saadiyat (which include the new Guggenheim satellite facility) may have been unkept promises.

The accompanying video, below, vividly describes and documents some of the troubling issues persisting at the construction site. At about 4:28 in this clip, you’ll hear Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong‘s response to a question about workers’ conditions:

We are of course very concerned that progress be made and we’re very aware of what’s happening and we’re working with our partners at the TDIC [Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company] to make certain that the conditions here are exemplary. That’s all I can say.

Yesterday, I asked Eleanor Goldhar, the Guggenheim’s deputy director and chief of global communications, for her institution’s reaction to the disturbing revelations in the Guardian’s investigation. She told me: “The Guggenheim continues to raise these [workers’ rights] issues in meetings with TDIC. We have no additional comments.”

In 2010, the Guggenheim forged a sweeping Workers Rights Agreement with the TDIC, to insure fair labor practices and job safety. The question remains whether a paper agreement can rewrite  ingrained, longstanding attitudes and practices towards migrant workers in the Middle East. The evidence so far is mixed.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 36-page annual report (published Dec. 22) on its independent “compliance monitoring” of working conditions and labor practices on Saadiyat Island, implementation of the TDIC’s Employment Practices Policy (EPP) has improved but still has a long way to go.

As PwC diplomatically put it: “While improvement has taken place in 2013, efforts are still required to enhance compliance.” (The third version of the EPP, dated February 2012, is here).

One serious unsolved problem is that many, if not most, agents who recruit the project’s migrant workers in other countries still charge those workers sizable “recruitment fees” for those jobs, according to the PwC report. The EPP contains explicit strictures against this, which are backed by a requirement that contractors reimburse any such fees charged by agents to Saadiyat workers.

PwC’s annual report noted that “the full resolution of this issue is beyond TDIC’s direct influence and also requires action outside of the UAE [United Arab Emirates].” Still, this buck should not be passed.

Another problem, spotlighted by the Guardian’s video, involves living conditions. VIP visitors hosted by the TDIC are shepherded to the model Saadiyat Accommodation Village (SAV) [broken link]. But the Guardian’s investigators found another housing camp where workers “cook in squalid kitchens” (pictured at the top of this post) and where “43 Bangladeshi men bunk together, 10 to each windowless room.” The video report suggests that the group living at the relatively cushy SAV may be only “a small minority of the Saadiyat workforce.”

The PwC annual report’s section on “Accommodations and Facilities” (p. 15) states that after a violent brawl in August, an unspecified “number of workers [were] temporarily relocated to a nearby accommodation facility within an acceptable distance from the project site….At the date of this report, not all of these workers have been returned to the SAV.” Neither PwC nor the Guardian gave numbers on how many workers were housed at the “model” site and how many were in substandard quarters. PwC’s last site visit (according to p. 31 of its report) was in September.

In a statement on worker welfare released Sunday, the TDIC issued an upbeat take on PwC’s independent-monitoring report. It quoted these PwC findings:

TDIC has made efforts in 2013 to improve worker social welfare on Saadiyat island and increase the level of compliance by the Contractors with the EPP….Among the findings highlighted in the report, was the establishment and implementation of financial penalties dependent on contractor’s performance in relation to the EPP, the first of which was issued to a contractor in August by TDIC.

In addition, when monitoring results indicated that a subcontractor had delayed payment of wages to workers, the company took immediate action which resulted in the subcontractor paying all their workers in an appropriate and timely manner.

In a separate statement, e-mailed to me today, responding directly to the Guardian’s investigative report, the TDIC said it was “appalled” that the British paper had “falsely claim[ed] that TDIC is failing to uphold its own employment practices….It seems that Mr. Batty’s main concern has been to provide readers with a sensational story, rather than an accurate one.”

The projected opening dates for Saadiyat museums are 2015 for the Louvre Abu Dhabi and 2016 for the Zayed National Museum. As for the repeatedly delayed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the opening date has been pushed back to 2017. There are no details yet for the Maritime Museum, which is considered to be part of the second phase of the island’s development. [UPDATE: The link for that museum, to have been designed by Tadao Ando, no longer works, and I couldn’t find an updated link.]

In February 2009, Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s director, had told me that the Frank Gehry-designed museum would open in 2012-13. In 2011, Goldhar had confirmed to me the accuracy of Georgina Adam ‘s Art Newspaper article, saying that the opening would be delayed to 2015. Now we’re looking at 2017.

When I asked her yesterday about the current status of the project, Goldhar told me that “the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is “not currently under construction,” but she added that the project is “absolutely not suspended. TDIC is tendering the project and that takes many months to result in awarding contracts.”

In an update sent to me this morning in response to my queries, Bassem Terkawi, the TDIC’s senior director for marketing & communication, informed me that “tenders have been issued and the main contractor will be awarded in the first quarter of 2014 for the Zayed National Museum and in the second quarter of 2014 for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.” The Louvre Abu Dhabi is already well along.

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