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Saadiyat Island workers, photo by Samer Muscati
Saadiyat Island workers, photo by Samer Muscati


Mar. 21, 2012

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There’s good news and bad news for the proposed branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums on Abu Dhabi’s $22 billion cultural playground on Saadiyat Island. Developers have been getting heat from Human Rights Watch since 2009 for failing to ensure protection for workers amid the United Arab Emirates’ notoriously draconian labor conditions. Now, a new 85-page report from Human Rights Watch titled “The Island of Happiness Revisited” says that commitments from the parties involved have improved, but there are still many “gaps.”

On the plus side, the report says that worker pay has been more regular, they’ve been receiving promised breaks and days off, and health insurance. The 40,000 employees who live in the official Saadiyat Island Workers’ Village have even gotten an internet café, laundry and recreational facilities.

Yet workers are still reporting that they haven’t received promised reimbursement of recruiting fees, particularly relevant to migrant workers who had to surrender their passports, sign sometimes fake contracts and wait months or years for back pay. And those who live in outside work camps have reported water shortages, filthy accommodations and overcrowding of up to 16 people living in one room.

The report calls for labor monitors to make their assessments open to the public and to more aggressively punish employers who don’t follow the rules. It also makes specific recommendations for the Louvre, the proposed branch of New York University and the Guggenheim, which has been under an artist boycott calling for improved working conditions. Human Rights Watch argues that even though only the Emirati Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) can enforce the rules, the institutions should pay reimbursement fees if the TDIC fails to do so. It suggests they “obtain and disclose enforceable guarantees” from the agency to protect themselves.

“For too long, migrant workers in the UAE have toiled in abusive conditions, with private and public developers showing little concern,” said Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Leah Whitson in a statement. “Now, finally, Emirati developers and their international partners have stepped up to the plate on Saadiyat Island to start to protect workers, but they will need to do more to curtail the abuses.”

So far the Louvre Abu Dhabi has delayed its opening until 2015 and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi until 2017.

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