April 12, 2015
The twenty-seven billion dollar investment in Saadiyat Island, which lies five hundred meters off the coast of Abu Dhabi, lured world-renowned institutions into getting involved in a project notorious for the grim abuse of labour. Besides the Guggenheim Museum and New York University, the Louvre has also decided to open a branch on the cultural hub of Saadiyat Island. When the Louvre, the most visited museum of the world, agreed on a contract with the City of Abu Dhabi to expand its reach to the United Arab Emirates in 2007 in exchange for the $1.3 billion worth payment, Jacques Chirac, then president of France, lauded the project as a reflection of the true world-view, in which each party is proud of its roots and identity, and also conscious of the equal dignity of other cultures. Passing years in the project, however, reflected not a true world-view of the equal dignity of cultures, but a gruesome form of modern slavery for the realization of this ambitious project.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has published three special reports on the abuse of migrant workers in the Saadiyat Island project, the latest of which urged institutions like the Guggenheim, New York University, and the Louvre to stand up for the rights of workers. These institutions should demand “the enforcement of worker protections and the compensation of workers who suffered abuses, including those arbitrarily deported after they went on strike.”
Forced labour is a very serious problem in the United Arab Emirates, and the great institutions of Saadiyat Island project is being built by workers who are extensively exploited. According to the HRW report, some employers withhold workers’ wages, confiscate their passports, fail to reimburse their recruiting fees, and house them in substandard conditions. Strike and protest are also forbidden. The contractors, working for the government in the construction of New York University and the Louvre, inform the United Arab Emirates authorities about strikes, which leads to arbitrary deportation of several hundred striking workers. Where protest is severely punished, there is little hope that working conditions will actually be addressed and improved. It rather seems like the United Arab Emirates, instead of ameliorating the working conditions, tries to hide the abuse of workers.
The squalid conditions in the camps, where workers are accommodated, make it very difficult to live. Bathrooms are shared by twenty men without proper sanitation, sewage is just outside the entrance, and food markets are like refuse dumps. Besides physical deterioration, workers also suffer from high amount of debts. Workers, who had borrowed high sums of money for paying illegal recruitment fees, just become disillusioned when they start to work on Saadiyat project and see that the income was not as high as advertised, and their debt cannot be paid off with the low wages. This desperate situation also empowers contractors to further exploit workers, who are in real need of money.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 176 million workers worldwide, has also criticized the Saadiyat project and treatment of workers. Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, said that workers are treated like battery hens, as they are locked in; “They work from 5.40 a.m. to 7 p.m., and sometimes they are forced to work overtime, often unpaid.” The ITUC has also slammed the sponsors of this project. In an online petition, the ITUC particularly targeted Dior for sponsoring the Guggenheim Museum. The petition, named “Modern Art Made Possible by Modern Slavery”, aimed at informing the sponsor companies about the grim abuse of workers, and by shaming, it tried to deter them from further contributions. For example, the Dior fundraising night for the Guggenheim had tables starting from seventy-five thousand dollars, while workers are paid only seven dollars per hour in the construction of the museum in Abu Dhabi.
The Guggenheim, New York University, and the Louvre are widely criticized for getting involved in a project where human rights are consistently violated and workers are exploited. The frenzy of construction in the Gulf countries depends on the large population of migrant workers whose rights are easily violated. These renowned institutions, for the sake of money, also participated in this endless circle of exploitation and slavery. Due to their reluctance and apparent consent, they will be remembered as a part of this grave network of modern day slavery.