The welfare of migrant workers employed to build Abu Dhabi’s major cultural projects is under fresh scrutiny after an independent investigation found a loophole in measures put in place to protect them. Many working for subcontractors at the campus of New York University (NYU) on Saadiyat Island were excluded from the guidelines designed to ensure they were paid in full and suitably housed by their employers.
NYU, which co-commissioned the investigation by New York-based Nordello & Co, was unaware that so many subcontractors were being exempted from the guidelines, the New York Times reports. The investigation found that as many as 30% of the around 30,000 workers on the campus, who are mainly from Bangladesh, India and Nepal, failed to benefit from the guidelines. The university issued a joint statement with its Abu Dhabi partner, Tamkeen, saying: “We will not allow such a compliance gap to occur in the future.” They aim to compensate any workers who were underpaid by subcontractors identified in the 72-page report.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Investment and Development Company (TDIC), the agency leading on Saadiyat Island’s three museums–the Louvre Abu Dhabi (which is due to open in 2016), the planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the National Zayed Museum–says that its employment policy, “which ensures the fair treatment of workers”, includes the monitoring of subcontractors and main contractors. Last year there were 46 subcontractors at TDIC’s seven sites.
Earlier critical reports by Human Rights Watch and Gulf Labor—a group of artists who have called for a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi until their demands on behalf of the workers are met—have led to TDIC commissioning three large-scale surveys by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) of the workers’ experiences—the most recent published in December 2014—and action has been taken over abuses such as the confiscation of passports and irregular payment. But both PwC and Gulf Labor say that nearly 90% of workers are still paying recruitment fees, often to middlemen in their home countries, averaging $2,000, which they have to work off.
Gulf Labor also demands that the workers be granted right of assembly in order to address grievances. Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim, tells us these are both issues that have to be resolved on a governmental level, but that the museum’s senior representative in Abu Dhabi, Hanan Sayed Worrell, was constantly in dialogue with TDIC and other intergovernmental organisations over workers’ rights and conditions.