Artists for rights of Workers on the Island of Happiness
SOME of the world's biggest, most costly and prestigious buildings go up cemented with the blood, sweat and tears of poor, exploited and ill-treated workers, often forced to live in awful conditions. Some people admire these wonders of the modern world, whether or not they can step into the luxury,in these millionaires' playgrounds, without worrying where the wealth they embody comes from, or how it is obtained, and from whom.
GUGGENHEIM ABU DHABI as it's meant to look. Maybe
Wonders of the Ancient World were built by slaves,
but can we accept 21st Century versions of slavery?
“Artists should not be asked to exhibit their work in buildings built on the backs of exploited workers. Those working with bricks and mortar deserve the same kind of respect as those working with cameras and brushes.”
-Walid Raad, Lebanese-born New York artist, one of leaders of Guggenheim boycott.
'The British Museum did not respond to our letter expressing in detail our concerns about the exploitation of construction workers in the UAE, which we sent in response to reports that the museum would establish a presence in Abu Dhabi.'
- Human Rights Watch 2009 report on workers in Abu Dhabi
But now more than 130 artists, many of them well-known figures in Middle East art, say they will have nothing to do with an $800 million Guggenheim museum being built in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, unless the contracts respect workers' rights, and improve conditions.
The new Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, is to be the centerpiece of a development called Saadiyat Island that includes a half-billion-dollar branch of the Louvre Museum designed by Jean Nouvel, a national museum designed by Norman Foster, luxury resorts, golf clubs, marinas and acres of private villas.
The way migrant workers are exploited and ill-treated are far from unique to the Emirates, though they stand out against such opulence, and because of the numbers involved. Some of the worst rip-off starts before the workers leave their own country. Many of the workers in the Emirates are from poor countries like Bangla Desh, attracted by the Gulf's oil wealth, and desperately hoping to work their way out from poverty and debt. It can be a trap in which they end up worse off. They have to pay huge fees upfront to the labour agencies, if they live in remote villages they may have to pay middlemen to even reach the agencies, and have to borrow from family members, sell any land they have, or borrow from money-lenders charging exorbitent interest. When they arrive in Abu Dhabi they can find that the good jobs and attractive wages they were promised by the agencies are a fiction, and so they are trapped, working twelve hours a day in the desert sun, and struggling to pay their debts.
The emirates vary in their conditions. Abu Dhabi, for instance, requires construction companies to provide health insurance to all employees, whereas Dubai mandated specialized bodies to protect workers' rights. It is not clear how many foreign workers live in the UAE or in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. The UAE Ministry of Labor states that there were 3.1 million foreign workers in the country in 2007. However, the figure may be higher: as interviews with foreign embassy officials suggests that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh alone account for up to 2.95 million UAE residents. Construction workers also come from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, and elsewhere, and the large population of foreign domestic workers in the UAE comes from the Philippines, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and other countries.
Extrapolating from official figures, a minimum of roughly 900,000 migrant construction workers live in the UAE, although actual numbers may be higher. By law, construction workers are not allowed to bring their families to the UAE. All residents of labor camps in the UAE are male. The average "cycle" of a foreign construction worker in the UAE is "four to five years," according to a senior advisor to the Ministry of Labor.
The government of Abu Dhabi is developing Saadiyat Island as part of an overall attempt to diversify the economy from oil and gas. The desert kingdom has imported sand to raise the island above sea level. Saadiyat Island is wholly administered by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA). In 2005, Sheikh Khalifa established the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), to manage the development of the ADTA's assets. Saadiyat will have hotels, marinas, two golf courses, museums, a university campus, a performing arts centre., and private villas.
Its name in Arabic means "happiness". How happy will it be for the workers?
When Human Rights Watch looked into this a couple of year ago it found:
- "Foreign construction workers in the UAE are subject to a sponsorship (or kafala) system that places them in a highly dependent relationship to their employers. In conjunction with prohibitions (de facto or de jure) against unions, collective bargaining and striking, the sponsorship system grants employers an extraordinary degree of control over foreign workers, placing the workers at severe risk of exploitation".
- "A foreign worker's legal ability to enter, live and work in the UAE depends on a single employer. UAE laws make it extremely difficult for workers to escape from this dependency after entering the UAE or beginning employment. If a foreign construction worker in the UAE quits, his employer will request the Ministry of Labor to cancel his labor card; a foreign worker who remains in the UAE more than two months after his labour card is cancelled will be fined. The employer will then take the worker's passport to the Ministry of Interior, which upon being shown the cancelled labor card will cancel the foreign worker's visa, stamp his passport with a six month ban on returning to the UAE, and arrange for his deportation to his home country.
- "...workers suffer other forms of abuse, such as overcrowded, unsanitary and dangerous housing, which continues to be a severe problem. According to news reports, the economic recession has led to an escalation in overcrowding and other poor treatment of workers at labor camps. The Ministry of Labor's chief inspector said that some companies, to cut costs, have added as much as 40 percent to the population of their labor camps (without increasing space for accommodation), and have cut workers' meals from three a day to one. Some more can be gleaned about workers accomodation from headlines "400 labour camps risk closure for violations," The National, August 29, 2008, http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080828/... "Chickenpox spread like wildfire at labor accommodations," Gulf News, June 6, 2008, http://www.gulfnews.com/Nation/Health/10218831.html, accessed March 16, 2008; Anthony Richardson, Praveen Menon and Greg Aris, "Early morning fire kills 11 men in Dubai," The National, August 26, 2008.
- Companies require workers to sign new contracts upon arrival in the UAE. These contracts are based on a Ministry of Labor model contract, written in Arabic and English. Most workers interviewed said they did not understand these languages, and that they signed their contracts without receiving any explanation of the contractual terms. No construction workers we interviewed had copies of their UAE work contracts. Workers sign these contracts in a coercive atmosphere. Some workers said companies threatened to deport them if they refused to sign. The driver for a road-building crew on Saadiyat Island said that a labour supply agency had promised him and 30 other men from Andra Pradesh jobs with a basic salary of 700 dirhams ($190) in the UAE; when they arrived and the Al Jaber company told them to sign contracts for a basic salary of 350 dirhams ($95), "We refused to sign anything. But after a month we all signed, because they were going to send us back."
- Because workers have already paid large fees to manpower agencies, they are not in a position to bargain over these contracts. Many workers interviewed said that their employers instructed them to sign UAE work contracts quickly and under pressure. An Abu Dhabi National Hotels employee said he had to sign his contract immediately after he arrived in the UAE: "they made us sign them on the bus on the way from Dubai airport at four in the morning."
- "In some cases, the degree of control employers exert over migrant workers amounts to forced labor. Several employees of Abu Dhabi National Hotels Compass (ADNH) on Saadiyat Island told Human Rights Watch they wanted to quit their various jobs, but that their employer had threatened to fine them before returning their passports if they quit before completing two years' service".
Illiterate workers are asked for a finger-print. Some workers said they were asked to sign or fingerprint blank sheets of paper, and told the company would fill in the contract later.
- In 2006, Human Rights Watch noted that the absence of labor unions and of independent workers' rights NGOs "has produced a situation where the government and the business sector are the sole entities deciding on labor-related issues." This has remained the case today. Workers were afraid to unionize or strike due to threats they would be fired and deported – threats backed up by laws that do not protect the right to organize and that forbid strikes, in violation of international labor laws.
None of the workers interviewed were members of trade unions. Most workers said they would be fired and deported if they unionized. Some workers said company officers explicitly threatened them if they were to join or form unions. An Al Habtoor employee, who said he had been assigned to work on a Leighton project on Saadiyat (the companies announced a joint venture in 2007), said that when he first arrived in the UAE, "The foreman told us all when we first got here not to try to form any groups because they'd cancel our visas."
Workers also said that company officials threatened them with deportation if they went on strike. A construction worker from Pakistan, who had been working on Saadiyat Island for five months without a holiday for Al Habtoor, said that "people from the company told us that if we went on strike our visas would be terminated."
Nevertheless tens of thousands of migrant workers in the UAE have gone on strike to protest low wages or poor treatment; authorities reportedly deported thousands and banned them from returning. In February 2007, a Dubai court sentenced 45 Indian construction workers to six-month jail terms, followed by deportation orders, for violence during a strike. In October, according to news reports, "thousands of construction workers in Dubai's Jebel Ali free-trade zone smashed police cars and blocked traffic. Within weeks, about 40,000 migrants in Dubai had staged strikes to demand pay raises, including for work building Burj Dubai, the world's tallest skyscraper."
UAE law does not protect the right to form or organize a union, or collective bargaining. The federal labor law is silent on the issue of strikes, but allows employers to dismiss workers without notice who are absent from work "without a valid reason" for seven consecutive or 20 non-consecutive days in one year.
According to the International Trade Union Confederation, the legislative committee of the UAE Ministry of Justice approved a bill allowing the formation of trade unions in the private sector in October 2004. In May 2006, the minister of labor indicated that the government would enact a law permitting trade union activities by the end of the year. As reported in Building Towers, Cheating Workers, Human Rights Watch asked for but did not receive details of the proposed legislation. There has been no further news on the proposal.
All workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they feared that they would be fired and deported if they used official channels to complain about abuses. One worker, who said that a labor supply agency in Pakistan had tricked him to come to the UAE with false promises of high wages, told Human Rights Watch that he chose not to ask the Pakistani embassy for help because "I'm afraid the next day my name would appear in the company records and I'd be terminated." A mason from India who worked for Al Habtoor on Saadiyat Island said he had still not been paid for his work on a previous job, but that "If we complain the camp boss will tell the head office we're lying and making problems. One year ago when I came back from my leave, one guy got fired for complaining. Now we're afraid."
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will cost £200 million to build, its most expensive museum. Other institutions involved in the Saadiyat Island project include the Louvre, the University of New York, and the British Museum, which is assisting in setting up a new Sheikh Zayyad National Museum. As part of a 10-year contract, the British Museum will lend some of its treasures to the venue and help it set up and curate exhibitions. The museum’s galleries will be based on a number of themes, one promoting “the story of oil”.
The British Museum may be hoping its undisclosed annual fee could help fund a £135m extension in London as government spending for the arts faces cuts. It's involvement in Abu Dhabi has government backing.
Human Rights Watch says it met with members of the Guggenheim Foundation in April 2008 and with consultants to the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim project in February 2009. It was told that the Guggenheim had raised Human Rights Watch's reporting on abuses against migrant construction workers to TDIC. But there was nothing in the contract about human rights or labour conditions.
The previous year it had contacted New York University, who did not respond until; with our concerns in September 2007; NYU did not respond until 2009, when officials finally met Human Rights Watch on April 10. University officials at the meeting stated that they had not sought any specific contractual guarantees of workers' rights protections from the Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority (EAA), their development partner, because construction of the campus had not yet begun; there was a "commitment on both our parts to make sure NYU is a model of best practices in Abu Dhabi"; and "we believe them [the EAA] that labor issues are a top priority for them and that they have room to improve."
NYU has published a list of eleven "labor values," which state that the NYU project will comply with UAE laws but which are often vague and do not address the fundamental concerns that HRW raised. For example, the first "value" states that, "As a floor, workers providing services to NYU Abu Dhabi will be paid wages and benefits which comply with all applicable UAE laws and regulations and which provide for their essential needs and living standards." There is no minimum wage in the UAE.
The body responsible for the Louvre was more forthcoming. But the "British Museum, which according to media reports will establish an unspecified presence in Abu Dhabi, had not responded to a letter Human Rights Watch sent on March 9, 2009 as of April 20". Perhaps I'll find out more about that.
The statement which 135 artists have signed says:
"We, the undersigned, are writing to demand that the Guggenheim Foundation obtain contractual guarantees that will protect the rights of workers employed in the construction and maintenance of its new branch museum in Abu Dhabi.
"Human rights violations are currently occurring on Saadiyat Island, the location of the new museum. In two extensive reports on the UAE, Human Rights Watch has documented a cycle of abuse that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, poorly paid, and unable to defend their rights or even quit their jobs. The UAE authorities responsible for developing the island have failed to tackle the root causes of abuse: unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages, and a sponsorship system that gives employers virtually unlimited power over workers.
These violations, which threaten to sully the Guggenheim’s reputation, present a serious, moral challenge to those who may be asked to work with the museum. No one should be asked to exhibit or perform in a building that has been constructed and maintained on the backs of exploited employees".
There is an international petition which so far seems mainly confined to professional artists. But as well as encouraging them in this principled stand for workers rights to be respected, maybe the trade union movement can get involved. And besides the Guggenheim initiative which appears to have been started appropriately in the 'States, we should see whether leverage could be applied on the British Museum connection.
Human Rights Watch report:
British Museum in the Gulf: