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Modern Day Slave Labor: Conditions for Abu Dhabi's Migrant Workers Shame the West

Workers on projects like Louvre, NYU and Guggenheim face destitution, internment, deportation and worse.
 
 
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Trade unions,  human rights activists and politicians have called for urgent labour reforms to protect the thousands of migrant workers building a complex of five-star hotels and museums on Saadiyat Island in the  United Arab Emirates, including a new Louvre and the world's largest Guggenheim.

The International Trade Union Confederation and art activism group  Gulf Labor have urged the western institutions involved in the project, including the British Museum, to take active steps to address the workers' welfare and press the UAE government to improve their conditions.

The calls come as an Observer investigation found evidence that the emirate's tourism development and investment company (TDIC), which runs Saadiyat, is failing to uphold its own employment policies, with workers left destitute, confined to their quarters and sent home for taking strike action. Migrant labourers building New York University's Abu Dhabi campus on the island were found to be suffering even worse mistreatment.

The investigation reveals that:

■ Companies are withholding the passports of migrant workers, trapping them in the UAE.

■ Thousands of workers are living in substandard or squalid conditions elsewhere in the UAE in apparent breach of the TDIC's pledge to house them all in its model Saadiyat accommodation village.

■ Dozens of workers were deported this year for striking over pay and conditions.

■ Workers decorating the university live in squalid conditions, with 10 men to a room, no free healthcare and some trapped because they have to pay back huge recruitment fees.

■ Mobile-phone video footage of a riot at the SAV in August shows dozens of men roaming the camp armed with metal spears and planks spiked with nails. Men are seen jumping out of windows to avoid the conflict.

■ A worker who claims he lost his leg while building luxury villas has been forced to live on the top floor of a migrant camp for a year. He only received a prosthetic leg last month and has been reliant on the Red Crescent for medical support. His claim for compensation and request for ground-floor accommodation have been rejected.

■ Louvre workers are having to work for nine months to a year just to pay back their recruitment fees. One worker who went on strike over poor wages was kept in his camp unpaid for three months and then sent back to Pakistan with 19 others.

The European council held a meeting on 4 December to discuss the growing concern about migrant workers' rights in the UAE and its neighbour, Qatar. The chair of the European parliament's subcommittee on human rights, German MEP Barbara Lochbihler, said migrant workers in the UAE, including those on Saadiyat Island, were exploited "on a daily basis".

She said: "Minimum labour standards are not respected, there are systematic complaints about poor accommodation and sanitation, salaries and medical services are withheld, and both experts and the migrants themselves report excessive police force and situations of forced labour. This is unacceptable.

"I therefore call on the UAE government, but also on all companies involved in the Saadiyat project – including [the] Louvre, British Museum and Guggenheim – to ensure that any form of mistreatment is addressed and that all migrants can fully enjoy their human rights."

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said the organisation was "deeply concerned by the abuses of workers' rights on Saadiyat island".

The findings reflected that labour abuses were a systemic problem in the UAE, with migrant workers suffering "extreme exploitation", including unpaid wages and excessively long working hours, she added.

 
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