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Reforms enacted in the United Arab Emirates have not done enough to end the exploitation of migrant workers building a high-profile project that includes branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums, a leading human rights group said Tuesday. The project’s government-backed developer immediately rejected the report’s findings.
In an 82-page report, Human Rights Watch acknowledged that Emirati authorities have taken “positive steps” to improve working conditions for the mainly South Asian workers on the Saadiyat Island project in the federation’s capital, Abu Dhabi.
But it said some workers still face abuses it documented in two previous reports, including employers confiscating workers’ passports, withholding pay and benefits, and housing workers in poor accommodations. Those who go on strike to protest their conditions face deportation, it said.
“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,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the rights group’s regional director. “New laws and codes of conduct are only as good as their enforcement.”
The report is the latest by international rights groups to cast a spotlight on labor practices in the Gulf Arab region. Blessed with immense oil wealth but relatively small local populations, the Emirates and other Gulf states rely on millions of temporary migrant laborers to raise their skyscrapers, staff shopping malls, drive taxis, and clean homes and hotels.
Human Rights Watch estimates there are more than 5 million low-paid migrant workers in the Emirates alone.
The government-backed Tourism Development and Investment Company, which is leading the Saadiyat Island project, rejected the report’s “unfounded conclusions,” calling them “outdated and based on unknown methodologies.”
It previously set up an “Employment Practices Policy” that sets out standards for companies involved in its projects and has built a facility that is supposed to house employees for all of its contractors and subcontractors.
It also hired auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to monitor work on the site, and says it has taken action “whenever there is a credible complaint,” including removing companies violating its policies.
In addition to the museums, Saadiyat Island includes a satellite campus of New York University as well as residential, leisure and commercial developments.
NYU spokesman John Beckman said the university considers the safety and well-being of those involved in its Abu Dhabi campus to be “a top institutional priority.” He said the institution hired international investigations firm Nardello & Co. last year to investigate allegations included in the report, and that a comprehensive review by the firm is expected to be released in the spring.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation said in a statement that construction of its Abu Dhabi museum has not yet begun, but it is working with TDIC and others “to continue to advance progress on conditions for workers.” It added that it is encouraged by the developer’s “commitment to advancing enforceable, measurable protections for workers’ rights,” and said there are further areas for improvement.
The Louvre said “the French branch has been very concerned about the respect given to the social norms on the Louvre Abu Dhabi work site since the beginning of the project.”
A statement from the museum said the HRW memo notes that 99 percent of workers have medical insurance, and that all have access to their passports. But it added that “the question of the hiring costs for workers remains a point of concern for everyone, and beyond the players in the Louvre Abu Dhabi.”
In its report, Human Rights Watch said it was unable to determine the extent of the abuses because Emirati authorities blocked it from researching the issue openly and prevented it from interviewing workers on the job site.
The group interviewed 113 current and former laborers who had worked on the project during 2013 and 2014, according to the report. Some said they were not paid salaries for months on end, faced arrest and deportation for striking, and were housed in “cramped and unsanitary housing.”
All of those interviewed said employers held their passports and did not reimburse them for recruiting fees they paid.