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Poor working conditions continue for starchitect projects in Abu Dhabi

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Many migrant workers employed on construction projects in the United Arab Emirates are being crippled by recruitment fees debts, living in substandard accommodation and working a minimum of 10 hours a day, new research has revealed

The findings were unearthed in a report by the Gulf Labor Coalition, a group which campaigns for the protection and welfare of migrant employees, following visits to labour camps in Abu Dhabi.

The organisation was invited by the government-owned developer of Saadiyat Island TDIC (Tourism Development and Investment Company) to an accommodation facility that houses staff working on building the Abu Dhabi branches of the Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, and Louvre museum by Jean Nouvel.

Although the Gulf Labor Coalition members were impressed with many aspects of the Saddiyat staff village, they warned that the high security nature of the facility ‘socially isolates’ workers and insisted it was not a good model to follow.

‘Workers should not be increasingly segregated from the UAE citizens, tourists and corporate expatriates whose needs they serve on a daily basis,’ Gulf Labor member Shaina Anand said. The coalition also unearthed multiple violations of labour codes during interviews with migrant workers living in off-island labour camps.

Recruits involved in the construction of New York University’s new branch campus and other Saadiyat projects told coalition members that they experienced non-payment of recruitment fees, withheld pay, and were not awarded promised pay increases.

They were also required to work mandatory overtime shifts, forced to live in substandard housing conditions, had their passports withheld and faced deportation without due process after work stoppages.

The coalition warned that workers were being crippled by the ‘historical and ongoing problem of recruitment debt’ – which on average took two years to pay off – and recommended they be paid a one-time relocation fee of $2000 USD to help them pay back recruitment fee debts.

The upfront payment would compensate for the average recruitment fee, visa and flight costs currently paid by workers and would cover those who have been in the country for many years, as well as new recruits.

‘This would help relieve workers of the immediate burden of debt which underpins their extreme vulnerability,’ the report said.

Other recommendations included an Abu Dhabi living wage for all Saadiyat workers, the formation of workers councils to maintain communications with, and channel grievances to, the UAE authorities as well as the reform of compliance monitoring methods.

The Architects’ Journal attempted to contact the TDIC and New York University, but both were unavailable for comment.

The latest report comes after a threat made by more than 130 international artists and writers in March to boycott the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim site if the rights of workers were not addressed.

Earlier this year Zaha Hadid, who has designed the first stadium for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, was reported as saying the death and abuse of migrant construction workers were a problem but that she was powerless to apply pressure on the Qatari government to prevent them.

Previous story (AJ 28.05.09)

Architects named in human rights row

Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel are among architects singled out by US-based organisation Human Rights Watch for the ‘abuse and severe exploitation’ of construction labourers occurring on their projects at Abu Dhabi’s luxury Saadiyat Island development.

In an 80-page report published last week, entitled The Island of Happiness: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, Human Rights Watch found that, despite slow improvements in timely payment of wages and labour conditions, abuses such as passport withholding and fines are still occurring.

Under government developer the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), Saadiyat Island (‘Happiness Island’ in Arabic) is being developed into a £17 billion tourism and cultural centre, comprising a Nouvel-designed Louvre, Foster + Partners’ Sheikh Zayed National Museum and Hadid’s Performing Arts Centre, all yet to be completed.

Human Rights Watch called on the architects, and institutions such as the Louvre, to obtain enforceable contractual guarantees that construction companies will protect workers’ fundamental human rights.

‘These international institutions need to show that they will not tolerate or benefit from the gross exploitation of these migrant workers,’ said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Julian Carlson, a director at Pascall + Watson, which was recently appointed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel to work on the Louvre project, said: ‘We haven’t reached the stage yet where we engage with the construction industry, but we are committed to supporting our client in achieving equitable working conditions.’

A statement from Zaha Hadid Architects said: ‘We take the Human Rights Watch report very seriously… As a partner in the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre project, Zaha Hadid Architects is confident the implementation of policies included in the TDIC CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] Report 2009 address the issues raised by Human Rights Watch.’

In response to the report, TDIC issued a statement saying that the report ‘not only neglects TDIC’s policies, procedures and actions relating to worker welfare, but also makes misleading assertions and false assumptions’.

Meanwhile a spokesman for Foster + Partners said: ‘As architects appointed by TDIC for the Zayed National Museum, we fully support every effort that TDIC have outlined in their CSR Report, and indeed the considerable work they have already done to ensure the workers employed on all of their projects enjoy their core labour rights. 

‘In particular we were pleased that TDIC have established an in-house Department of Employment Practices Compliance - a step which we think will further protect workers on their projects.  TDIC have promised regular updates on their values in areas of sustanability, health and safety, labour practices and philanthropy and Foster + Partners are looking forward to working with them in order to acheive those values.

Correction: An earlier version of this post contained references to a project’s design architect, Gehry Partners, LLP. These references were made without having spoken to the practice and have been removed. We regret any misunderstanding.

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