Museums United Arab Emirates

Conflicting reports on labour conditions at Saadiyat

But both sources agree that workers are struggling to pay recruitment and relocation fees

Saadiyat Island workers leaving their worksite. Photo: © 2011 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Two reports published last month paint different pictures of working conditions on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, where branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim are to be built.

In its second annual report on worker welfare, the company PricewaterhouseCoopers noted key improvements made during 2013, including a new education and literacy programme for workers and upgraded living accommodations. By the end of the year, the report states, 100% of workers also had access to their passports, up from 52% last spring. The UAE’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) hired the accounting firm in 2012 to conduct an independent annual review of working conditions.

In an article published on 22 December, the Guardian presented a bleaker situation. The newspaper reported that companies continue to withhold passports from migrant workers, trapping them in the UAE. Thousands have been living in substandard conditions since August, when a group was removed from the Saadiyat accommodation village housing workers after a fight broke out, according to the paper.

The two sources did agree on several areas in need of improvement. Workers are struggling to pay recruitment and relocation fees to subcontractors who hired them in countries including Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The number of workers burdened with such fees rose to more than 80% in 2013, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Some Louvre workers have had to work for up to a year just to repay the fees, the Guardian reports. PricewaterhouseCoopers also expressed concern about whether workers had adequate time to read their employment contracts before signing them.

A spokesman for TDIC says that the organisation “has always been committed to the welfare of the workers on any of our projects” and “demobilised” one subcontractor last year for charging recruitment and relocation fees. He added that the Guardian reporter declined an invitation to visit the Saadiyat accommodation village and that “it seems…[his] main concern has been to provide readers with a sensational story, rather than an accurate one.”

Spokeswomen for the Louvre and Guggenheim both welcomed the report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. “We continue to engage in ongoing communications with the TDIC focused on ensuring the rights of workers who will be hired to work on the Guggenheim site,” a Guggenheim spokeswoman said in a statement. Construction has yet to begin on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which is due to be completed in 2017. The Louvre spokeswoman reiterated that “the construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island is the responsibility of the TDIC” but added that the museum has given “constant” attention to the subject of working conditions.

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