WATCH: The Dirty Secret Behind the NYU, Louvre, Guggenheim Projects in Abu Dhabi

02/10/2015 11:01 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015
Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

(New York) – Serious concerns about workers’ rights have not been resolved for a high-profile project in Abu Dhabi that will host branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums and a campus of New York University (NYU), Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. These institutions should make their continued engagement with the Saadiyat Island project contingent on the developers’ commitment to more serious enforcement of worker protections and the compensation of workers who suffered abuses, including those arbitrarily deported after they went on strike.

The 82-page report, “Migrant Workers’ Rights on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates: 2015 Progress Report,” is the third Human Rights Watch report on migrant worker abuses on the Saadiyat Island site. The report details how, five years after Human Rights Watch revealed conditions of forced labor on Saadiyat Island, some employers are withholding workers’ wages and benefits, failing to reimburse them for recruiting fees, confiscating workers’ passports, and housing them in substandard accommodations. In the most serious cases, contractors working for the two government development entities on the NYU and Louvre sites apparently informed United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities about the strike, leading to the arbitrary deportation of several hundred striking workers.

“The progress in respecting workers’ rights on Saadiyat Island risks being tossed out the window if workers know they can’t protest when things go wrong and are still getting stuck with recruitment fees and suffering other abuses,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director. “NYU, the Louvre, and the Guggenheim need to make clear that new laws and codes of conduct are only as good as their enforcement.”

While the abuses concern a small percentage of the workers, the serious problems, which mirror the findings of independent monitors, reveal a gap in enforcement of the UAE development partners’ stated commitments. Workers on the NYU site are supposedly protected by a code of conduct implemented by the Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority and monitored by Mott McDonald. Workers on the Louvre and Guggenheim sites are protected by a code of conduct implemented by the Tourism, Development and Investment Company (TDIC) and monitored by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Though the government’s developers have never granted access to the site, Human Rights Watch spoke to 116 present and former employees of contractors on Saadiyat Island projects. Interior Ministry representatives informed the researcher as he was leaving the UAE in January 2014 that they were blacklisting him and would not allow him to return.

The UAE has changed its labor law to allow workers to change employers without their consent and to revoke the licenses of agents who charge workers recruitment fees. New codes of conduct regulate contractors on the NYU and museum sites. But workers still endure serious abuses, including summary deportation, Human Rights Watch said.

Workers from BK Gulf, a contractor at the NYU site, and Arabtec, a contractor at the Louvre site, told Human Rights Watch that the UAE authorities arbitrarily detained and deported several hundred workers in separate and unrelated strikes in May and October 2013.

“They [the UAE authorities] arrested everyone they could get their hands on,” said one former BK Gulf worker, who described the arrests, which he and others said were led by a group of masked police officers, as “terrifying.” Another worker said Dubai police slapped and pushed him in an interrogation and demanded to know who had organized the strike, which the men said led to more than 200 deportations. Neither BK Gulf nor the Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority responded to questions about the incident.

An Arabtec worker detained and then deported over a strike in October 2013 said he is still trying to pay back people in Bangladesh who loaned him the money to pay a US$2,600 recruitment fee, for which his employer had not reimbursed him.

In response to letters from Human Rights Watch, Arabtec said that it agreed to some of the workers’ demands but that “a number of employees were not prepared to accept these arrangements and asked to be repatriated.” UAE media reported that the authorities cancelled the visas of 467 Arabtec employees after the strike.

PwC, the third-party monitor appointed by TDIC in 2011, issued the third in a series of compliance reports in December 2014, confirming many of the Human Rights Watch findings, and concluded that the company had not adequately monitored compliance with the codes of conduct. In its 2014 report, PwC noted that TDIC had enforced financial penalties against only three of the six contractors it had sanctioned the previous year, but PwC and TDIC have never named the contractors who have been sanctioned or specified the reasons for the fines or the amounts. In its response to the Human Rights Watch summary of findings, TDIC contended that without a random sample of workers, the findings did not “truly reflect the reality on the ground.”

The code of conduct that protects workers on the NYU site does not appear to have any penalty policy associated with it. The Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority did not respond to requests for information in that regard.

In light of the ongoing abuses of workers on their projects, Agence France-Muséums, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and New York University should make their continued engagement with their projects on Saadiyat Island dependent on public commitments by the UAE government authorities and the two agencies overseeing the projects to protect workers from abuse, penalize contractors for violations, and compensate workers who suffer abuses.

“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,” Whitson said. “They need to exert their influence much more forcefully and demand much more in return for their presence on Saadiyat Island.”