SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association) – The United Nations is investigating the abuse of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates, where the British Museum and other major western museums, including the Guggenheim, are involved in a multibillion-pound cultural hub.
The move, by the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), comes after a complaint brought by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which warned that migrants doing construction and domestic work were with “alarming frequency … trapped in exploitative practices that may amount to forced labour”.
Human Rights Watch and the ITUC said the investigation meant that western institutions would no longer be able to rely on local assurances that the thousands of migrant workers in Abu Dhabi were being well treated. Many are employed on Saadiyat, the site of a £17bn ($27bn) complex of museums and luxury resorts.
The Observer found evidence last year that Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), overseeing construction of new Guggenheim and Louvre museums – and the Zayed National Museum, to which the British Museum is a cultural adviser – is failing to uphold its own employment policies. Workers were left destitute due to illegal recruitment fees, deported for complaining about wages and going on strike, and housed in slum-like camps. Migrants building New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus on the island, under a separate lucrative deal with the emirate’s government, were treated even worse.
The artists’ campaign group Gulf Labor in March uncovered similar abuse. A report by Human Rights Watch in January is expected to support the findings.
ITUC’s complaint, which highlights Saadiyat abuses, says the United Arab Emirates, an ILO member, “is in serious breach of its legal obligations” under the body’s convention on forced labour, which it ratified more than 30 years ago. The confederation adds that the Gulf state “fails to maintain a legal framework adequate to protect the rights of migrant workers” that is consistent with the convention and an amendment passed this year requiring signatories to enforce the suppression of forced labour. The ITUC blames the kafala system, which requires foreign workers to be sponsored by an individual. Poor migrants rack up severe debts with fees of up to $2,500 to obtain a visa from their kafeel or sponsor, with their passports, and sometimes their wages, withheld, preventing them from leaving.
The ILO can suspend a member state if it refuses to accept its verdict. If the complaint is upheld, it would be embarrassing for the UAE, appointed in June to the governing council of the agency in 2016. The ILO launched investigations in 2012 and 2013 against Qatar, which operates the kafala system,amid concerns over workers building the 2022 World Cup stadiums. Sharan Burrow, the ITUC’s general secretary, said: “These Gulf states, among the wealthiest in the world, are developing their economies on the basis of the kafala system, which is modern-day slavery.You are owned by an employer; you have no right of movement from job to job; there’s no serious compliance [with] the fundamental ILO articles of workers’ rights; and you’re not free to leave when the job becomes unbearable or the living conditions are such that you can no longer live with dignity.This must end.”
The ILO investigation should be a “wakeup call” to the three museums and the NYU, a warning echoed by Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch, who said: “It’s a further warning to the NYU, the Guggenheim, the Louvre, the British Museum and others that they’ve set up shop in a country with a dismal record on labour rights – and that’s going to have ramifications, such as this investigation. They’re going to continually be under scrutiny until their host puts their house in order.And the evidence suggests that they have not.”
The British artist Guy Mannes-Abbott, of Gulf Labor, said western institutions should be held accountable for “knowingly profiting from breaches of international law and labour conventions”. He added: “The least we should hope for is that the museums are fined sufficiently to reimburse the recruitment fees and relocation costs that workers on all their construction sites have been trapped and abused by throughout the process to date.”
A TDIC spokesman said it would “co-operate with all relevant entities [about] worker welfare”.
A British Museum spokeswoman saidstaff had visited the Saadiyat on 3 November 2014. She added: “The welfare of Saadiyat workers is important and we are satisfied with the work that TDIC have put in place.”
A spokesman for the NYU said its campus was completed in April, but it remained vigilant to “all alleged and potential violations”.
Source: The Observer