A group of laborers at Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, 2009. Photo by Paul Keller from Flickr.

Labor Abuses Reported on Museum Island

United Arab Emirates

As construction is about to begin on Abu Dhabi’s new USD 27 billion museum complex, the emirate’s cultural-tourism development on Saadiyat Island has come under criticism for its treatment of laborers working there. On May 19, New York-based Human Rights Watch released an 80-page report documenting “forced labor” practices on Saadiyat Island during the past two years, as more than 1,300 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Thailand lay down the island’s basic infrastructure, including the 1.4-kilometer, ten-lane Saadiyat Bridge.

When completed in the next ten to fifteen years, the 27-square kilometer island, located 500 meters off the coast of Abu Dhabi, will be home to six museums, including branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, a campus for New York University, two golf courses, 30 hotels and several communities of luxury residences.

The Human Rights Watch report, “‘The Island of Happiness’ Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi,” follows a 2006 report, “Building Towers, Cheating Workers” released by the NGO that detailed labor conditions in the neighboring emirates of Dubai and Sharjah. This year’s report documents many of the same issues raised in the earlier report—the confiscation of workers’ passports, exorbitant employee-paid recruitment fees, substandard and overcrowded housing, underpayment of wages, usurious loans and restricted access to legal remedies—and criticizes the government for not addressing the root causes of worker exploitation, which Human Rights Watch maintains are the UAE’s notoriously weak labor laws.

There is no minimum wage or cost-of-living standard in the UAE, and more than 10,000 workers have been jailed in the last three years for attempting to unionize, collectively bargain with employers or protest working conditions. The more than 1.2 million foreign construction workers in the UAE depend on sponsorship from their employers to remain in the country. Laborers who attempt to move to another company can be deported and banned from working in the Emirates for up to a year.

The construction workers on Saadiyat Island make an average of $8 per day for ten to twelve hours of work, six or seven days a week. Housed in employer-provided units, referred to as labor camps, many foreigners are heavily indebted to the contractors who brought them to the UAE and face immediate deportation and large financial penalties if they stop working. But despite the adverse conditions, workers can make from two to four times the amount they would earn in their home countries.

Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), charged with overseeing development on the island, rebutted the claims in the report. The TDIC disavowed responsibility for the conditions of workers hired by construction firms, stating that government regulations obliged contractors “to comply with existing UAE labor laws which do not allow for the confiscation of passports,” but that “some companies do offer to hold workers’ passports for their own security to prevent theft or loss, but a worker has the right at any time to retrieve their passport.”

The government also claimed that the HRW report overlooks many improvements that have been made in labor conditions. Anwar Gargash, minister of state for foreign affairs, said in a statement: “The UAE is particularly surprised and disappointed by HRW’s attempts to sensationalize the drawbacks in the country’s labor policies into media soundbites, without consideration of the rapid strides that have been made over the past few years.”

One day before Human Rights Watch released the report, the TDIC announced the opening of Construction Village, blocks of temporary housing that will accommodate 5,000 additional workers arriving in July to begin work on the museum district and the first hotel. The TDIC plans to erect new residences for an additional 15,000 workers by March 2010 as more projects start up.

Human Rights Watch contacted the international architecture firms involved in projects on the island—Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Foster + Partners, Gehry Partners, Rafael Viñoly Architects, Tadao Ando Architects and Associates and Zaha Hadid Architects—along with the French government, the Agence France-Muséums, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and New York University to lobby these organizations to require contractual guarantees from local employers. The Guggenheim and Agence France-Muséums, as well as two building companies, reported that the TDIC had pressured them to remain silent about their concerns over working conditions. The TDIC denied these allegations. Construction on the Louvre is set to begin in July.