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Few Assurances Made on UAE Worker Rights

April 23, 2008

By Sam Lubell

Developers and officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are enlisting renowned museums, including the Louvre and the Guggenheim, as well as top architects such as Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel, to build cultural facilities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. But citing what it describes as the UAE’s poor record on preventing abusive labor conditions, the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has made several appeals for these cultural institutions to assure fair worker treatment. So far, it hasn’t received any pledges.

“We’ve had some vague responses, but they’ve been noncommittal and don’t address the basic issues of labor standards,” says Joe Stork, deputy director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division.

In several reports, HRW has documented alleged exploitation of the UAE’s huge migrant-worker population, which mainly comes from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Problems include recruiting agencies that charge astronomical fees from immigrants, and contractors that seize workers’ passports and withhold paychecks. The UAE does not allow workers to strike legally, but laborers have staged illegal walkouts—including one at the Skidmore, Owings & Merill–designed Burj Dubai in late 2007. Stork says that HRW representatives are planning to visit the UAE in early May to see firsthand if conditions are improving.

HRW’s campaign began in 2006 with letters sent to directors of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, which are building facilities in Abu Dhabi’s new Saadiyat Cultural District. That zone will also feature a maritime museum by Tadao Ando, a performing arts center by Zaha Hadid, and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum by Foster + Partners. The letters outlined HRW’s reports on worker abuses and called on the museums to ensure that their projects adhere to international labor standards and to create a monitoring mechanism.

HRW has also sent roughly 30 similar letters to other international organizations working in Dubai. HRW declined to reveal names, but other institutions planning educational or cultural facilities in the UAE include New York University (NYU), Michigan State, Johns Hopkins, Yale University, Harvard University, and the Sorbonne. Many are receiving subsidies from the UAE government for their projects. The Louvre, for instance, is reportedly receiving $520,000 for the use of its name and another $750,000 for art loans and consulting.

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Stork says that despite the letters and subsequent phone calls to these institutions, few have responded with “substantive” comments. He contends that they have distanced themselves from taking responsibility. “They are still setting the terms on the construction contracts,” he argues. “It’s especially frustrating since these institutions try to hold themselves up to a higher code of ethics.”

RECORD’s own calls to the Guggenheim and Gehry’s office also went unreturned; only one architect responded for a similar article in July 2007.

For its part, the UAE Ministry of Labor maintains that it is “overhauling” its labor laws and “substantially increasing” its inspection capacity. Alex Zalami, an international affairs advisor at the Ministry, says that the government “takes issue with the sort criticism that is based on unsubstantiated claims, lack of due diligence in reaching conclusions, labels, and stereotypes.” He adds that complying with the Abu Dhabi government’s strict labor standards was a prerequisite for Gehry to move forward with the Guggenheim project, which is set to open in 2011. “Leveling charges before the project has even begun and without bothering to investigate is revealing of an attitude that betrays HRW’s repeated claims that it seeks a dialogue with the UAE government on the protection of construction workers,” Zalami says.

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