New Human Rights Watch Report Claims "Abuses Are Continuing" for Workers at Abu Dhabi's Museum Island

New Human Rights Watch Report Claims "Abuses Are Continuing" for Workers at Abu Dhabi's Museum Island
Saadiyat Island workers leaving their worksite
(© 2011 Samer Muscati /Human Rights Watch )

Is there any doubt that Art Dubai has become the place to get noticed when it comes to art in the Middle East? Just ask political activists.

Last year, a coalition of artists led by Walid Raad and Emily Jacir chose Art Dubai week to release a statement saying that they would boycott the Guggenheim being built on Saadiyat Island in the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi unless assurances were made that labor conditions improved for the largely South Asian guest workers constructing the new museum. The action was inspired by concerns first raised in a 2009 report from the watchdog group Human Rights Watch about violations of human rights and basic fair labor practices. This morning, Human Rights Watch itself has taken advantage of Art Dubai 2012 — which opens officially today — to release a long-in-the-works follow-up report detailing both the substantial progress made in the intervening years as well as the “continuing gaps in protections” for workers.

The 85-page report, obtained by ARTINFO, is based on interviews with 47 workers on the island conducted between October 2010 and January 2011. Though it seems there have been considerable developments in the region since Human Rights Watch's last visit, including the appointment of an independent monitor, the organization told ARTINFO it has continued research informally through more recent, less formal discussions with journalists and workers. The outcome of all this research is that the organization finds that “in spite of commitments by both the developers and foreign partners to take steps to avoid abuse of migrant workers… and in spite of some improvements in working conditions of migrant workers, abuses are continuing."

The report also outlines in detail HRW's ongoing conversations and negotiations with the cultural and educational institutions developing outposts in Saadiyat Island, as well as the TDIC, a government-owned organization that oversees the region’s development. The United Arab Emirates has reportedly sunk between $22 and $27 billion into the effort to make Saadiyat Island a tourist destination. The construction of branches of the Guggenheim, whose flashy Frank Gehry-designed building has been subject to delays and is now slated to open in 2017, and the Louvre, which is now scheduled to debut in 2015, are centerpieces of its development plan.

Since its initial report three years ago, Human Rights Watch admits there have been notable improvements in regular payment of wages, rest breaks, and days off for the guest laborers tasked with building these new temples of culture, and asserts that the construction projects have done some good as well, by creating “new benchmarks for labor practices across the Gulf.” Still, some workers continue to be misled about the conditions of their contracts prior to arrival and many are denied access to their passports, according to the new report. “If I knew I had to do this work, I never would have come here for this,” Nurredin A., a former driver from Pakistan, told Human Rights Watch (in an interview dating from 2010). He came to Saadiyat expecting to work at a bottled water plant, but was instead employed by a labor supply company to help construct the Guggenheim building.

The report also charges that many workers continue to be held accountable for recruitment fees — large sums of money pocketed by recruiting agents in exchange for connecting workers with employers on Saadiyat Island — which are illegal under UAE law and “effectively trap workers in their jobs,” according to the watchdog group. (Many workers told the organization they took out loans or mortgaged their homes in order to afford the fees, only to find their actual salary was less than recruiters originally promised.) The new report recommends that the Guggenheim and the Louvre volunteer to reimburse any laborer who has paid recruitment fees and not yet been reimbursed by the TDIC.

A preliminary version of the new report was released to officials from the Guggenheim, the TDIC, and the Louvre one year ago. Since then, the TDIC has made considerable improvements, Human Rights Watch says: It has hired an independent monitoring firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, to review and issue public reports on compliance with rules safeguarding workers, and agreed to reimburse workers for recruitment fees. Despite these improvements, the report notes that the TDIC has not yet released details about the scope of the monitoring. (A similar concern led the coalition of artists boycotting the museums to issue a public standment reiterating their stance in September 2011). “The absence of this information makes it difficult to assess whether the contract provides for fully independent monitoring (as opposed to an internal compliance program),” the report states. 

While much attention has been focused on the Guggenheim, perhaps the harshest light is now on the Louvre. The French museum and its parent agency, the Agence France-Museums, have yet to make any solid public commitments to workers’ rights on the island, according to the report, in contrast to both the TDIC and the Guggenheim. “We feel that public promises won’t bear fruits,” Christine Gavini-Chevet, advisor to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reportedly told HRW in a meeting last May, adding that the abuses cited by the organization are "not relevant" to them because at that time construction hadn’t yet begun on the Louvre site. Human Rights Watch notes, however, that in October 2010, its representatives found “pilings on the site had already been completed, indicating that construction has proceeded further than on… the Guggenheim site.” In other words, HRW calls into question the Lourve's transparency and commitment to assess the issues raised truthfully.

For its part, the Guggenheim has been vocal about its support for high labor standards, though it also has questioned some of Human Rights Watch's research methods. Director Richard Armstrong told the organization in a letter last March that the draft of the just-released report “painted an inaccurate picture of the substantial progress to date in safeguarding workers rights.” While Human Rights Watch interviewed five to ten workers on the Guggenheim site, Armstrong noted, the independent monitor employed by the TDIC interviewed many more, and had released its own report to the museum that he characterized as “encouraging.” 

The particulars of the information that encouraged the Guggenheim, however, have not been made public, nor have any other advancements made since then — and the ongoing lack of clarity about the vital issues of worker rights at the multi-billion-dollar art complex really is the crux of the new report. Samer Muscati, a representative from Human Rights Watch, told ARTINFO that the organization is still waiting for the TDIC to release reports from its independent monitor that detail exactly how labor conditions have improved. But, he indicated that he was not optimistic that even this would clear the air: "Even if they do release the audits," he said, "we don’t know what the terms of reference are or methodology used since they haven’t disclosed that to us."