HRW Calls on UAE to End Worker Abuse at Museum Development Sites

Al-Akhbar is currently going through a transitional phase whereby the English website is available for Archival purposes only. All new content will be published in Arabic on the main website (www.al-akhbar.com).

Al-Akhbar Management

Published Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Human Rights Watch urged the Louvre and Guggenheim museums Tuesday to pressure the United Arab Emirates to end worker abuse on a project that will host branches of the institutions.

Some employers at the Saadiyat Island site in Abu Dhabi, which will also be home to a campus of New York University (NYU), are withholding wages, confiscating workers' passports, and housing them in substandard accommodation, HRW said.

Several hundred workers who went on strike at the site were arbitrarily deported, the New York-based rights group said.

Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) hit back, rejecting the report's "unfounded conclusions" which it said were "outdated and based on unknown methodologies."

"We have established a comprehensive Employment Practices Policy (EPP) outlining the standards required from the companies working on our projects, and laying out penalties for those found to be in breach of any aspect," it said.

TDIC said it had also set up a housing facility for workers that had won praise from "many groups, including British members of parliament, museum partners, senior foreign diplomats and numerous others" who had visited the facilities.

Saadiyat's main developer said all workers have access to their passports and 99 percent are provided with medical insurance.

However, HRW said that while only "a small percentage" of workers were subjected to abuse, the prestigious foreign institutions involved should demand commitments by the UAE to protect workers and compensate them for mistreatment.

Problems were persisting despite the new codes of conduct regulating contractors involved in the project, it charged.

"NYU, the Louvre, and the Guggenheim should surely understand by now that they can't blindly accept the UAE authorities' assurances that workers' rights are being respected," said HRW's Sarah Leah Whitson.

"They need to exert their influence much more forcefully and demand much more in return for their presence on Saadiyat Island."

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, for its part, said "significant and documented progress has been made by TDIC in a number of areas, including dedicated workers' accommodations, access to medical coverage, and retention of passports."

Guggenheim representatives have made several visits to the accommodation and "observed firsthand its elevated standards," and they have held regular meetings with TDIC.

"Areas for improvement remain," it cautioned, especially in the recruitment process, requiring cooperation between workers' countries of origin and their destination.

"We understand that this endeavour comes with great responsibility and we are committed to advocating for change," it said, pointing out that a contractor had yet to be selected for the construction of the Guggenheim museum itself.

UAE is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that also includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar. All GCC countries have come under fire for the kafala system of sponsorship for migrant workers, which is used to varying extents across the Gulf.

The oil-rich members, especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have long cracked down on dissent and calls for democratic reform, drawing criticism from human rights groups.

Amnesty International published a report titled "There is no freedom here: silencing dissent in the UAE" in mid-November that describes the UAE as a “deeply repressive state where activists critical of the government can be tossed in jail merely for posting a tweet."

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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