Migrants building UAE cultural hub ‘working in prison conditions’
Trade unions and artists say workers at Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi are subject to segregation, curfew and monitoring by security guards
Trade unions and artists have condemned the conditions faced by migrant workers building a £17bn cultural hub in the United Arab Emirates, including new branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums, as akin to an open prison.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Gulf Labor, a coalition of international artists, said the several thousand workers in the official labour camp on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi were subject to segregation, a 10pm curfew and monitoring by security guards, and could only enter or leave on authorised buses.
The researchers found that thousands more Saadiyat workers living in camps elsewhere in the UAE, which they also visited in March, endured similar restrictions.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, said: “People are treated like battery hens. They’re locked in. There are guards. They leave at 5.30-6am, they go home at 6-7pm in the evening, or later if they are forced to work overtime, often unpaid.”
Two of the Gulf Labor activists, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals by the UAE authorities, said the Saadiyat Accommodation Village (SAV) was inaccessible by foot and workers could only travel the 2km between the camp’s entrance and perimeter checkpoint by hourly shuttle buses. The camp shuts down at 10pm and any workers who miss the curfew are locked out overnight. Workers are only permitted to access their designated accommodation block.
Gulf Labor will present their findings at the Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious contemporary art event, in July, where the group is staging a series of talks highlighting the plight of the Saadiyat workers.
Although the UAE authorities have said working conditions are improving on Saadiyat, Gulf Labour said they found forced labour persisted. Many workers said they had to pay illegal recruitment fees to secure their jobs and also reported being forced to work overtime without additional pay.
One of the activists said: “I can’t imagine a situation being worse than what we saw in terms of the lack of respect for human dignity.”
The activists saw squalid conditions in other camps in Abu Dhabi and Dubai including bathrooms shared by 20 men without proper sanitation, sewage outside the main entrance, and makeshift food markets that looked like refuse dumps.
They said workers were in serious debt as a result of paying illegal recruitment fees to gain work on the island. One worker from Nepal said he would need to work for two years before he paid off his recruitment fee.
Meanwhile the ITUC has begun a social media campaign targeting the Guggenheim and one of its major sponsors, Dior, in a bid to push the museum to address labour conditions on Saadiyat, where the construction of its largest branch is expected to begin this year.
The first phase of the ITUC campaign highlights the disparity between the wealthy art patrons who paid up to$75,000 for a table at the Guggenheim’s international gala fundraising dinner in New York last November, sponsored by Dior, and the squalid and impoverished conditions of Saadiyat workers.
Burrow, who met Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong on Saadiyat earlier this month, said the campaign would also target the museum’s other sponsors, such as Hugo Boss, Tiffany & Co, Samsung and Phillips. It will also target western institutions and companies involved in Saadiyat, where a branch of New York University has been built and a new Louvre museum is due to open next year.
The Guggenheim declined to comment. The Louvre and the Tourism Investment and Development Company (TDIC), which overseas the development of Saadiyat, did not respond to requests for comment.
The UN International Labour Organisation has launched an investigation into the abuse of migrant workers in the UAE, partly prompted by concerns about conditions on Saadiyat, which is due to be published by the end of the year.
The most recent audit of Saadiyat Island by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which was appointed by TDIC to monitor workers’ welfare, found that the company had not consistently enforced its employment practices policy, which is supposed to ensure the fair treatment of labourers.
According to the audit, TDIC imposed financial penalties against only three of the six contractors who were found to be in breach of the policy last year. However, the audit noted that TDIC has pledged to introduce a fairer employment code this year and has already made some improvements to facilities at the SAV, including door-to-door laundry services and new kitchens.
• This article was amended on 8 April 2015 to clarify that the Guggenheim sponsors Hugo Boss, Tiffany & Co, Samsung and Phillips are not directly involved in the Saadiyat project.