Gulf Labor calls on Abu Dhabi to pay off museum workers’ debts

Gulf Labor, a group of international artists campaigning for the protection of migrant labourers working on academic and cultural institutions in Abu Dhabi, said such payments “would help relieve workers of the immediate burden of debt . . . which underpins their extreme vulnerability”.

Gulf Labor calls on Abu Dhabi to pay off museum workers’ debts
By Simeon Kerr in Dubai
FINANCIAL TIMES, May 2, 2014

An artists’ pressure group on Friday called on Abu Dhabi to give workers building the oil-rich emirate’s museums – which include the Guggenheim and the Louvre – a one-off fee of $2,000 to help them pay off recruitment fee debts as controversy rages over migrant labour rights in the Gulf.

Gulf Labor, a group of international artists campaigning for the protection of migrant labourers working on academic and cultural institutions in Abu Dhabi, said such payments “would help relieve workers of the immediate burden of debt . . . which underpins their extreme vulnerability”.

As Gulf states launch grandiose schemes, scrutiny of labourers’ rights has intensified. Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup in 2022 has prompted similar concerns after claims that workers are dying on construction sites there.

Most South Asian workers in Abu Dhabi’s cultural district, currently a construction site, reported having paid recruitment fees of $1,000-$3,900 to agents in their home countries, often having to pledge family land as collateral on loans for the fees, the group said.

“Workers building the region’s most luxurious and biggest developments should be able to offer their labour without this extreme pressure of indebtedness,” Gulf Labor said in a statement.

Gulf Labor’s campaign, launched in 2011, has inspired direct action protests at the Guggenheim’s New York base, embarrassing the US museum and putting Abu Dhabi under more pressure to reform labour standards.

The Tourism Development and Investment Company, the government-owned developer, has set up workers’ accommodation on Saadiyat Island, where the museums and a branch of New York University are under construction.

It has also drawn up an “employment practices policy” to protect rights, including demands on contractors to pay off any recruitment fees paid by their workers. But Gulf Labor said none of the 20 workers interviewed at the residence had yet had these fees reimbursed.

The report came after TDIC invited the pressure group to visit accommodation and museum construction sites in March. Gulf labour acknowledged TDIC’s willingness to engage in worker welfare “seriously”. TDIC did not respond to requests for comment.

Gulf Labor said its main concern was low pay for the workers on site, suggesting a “living wage” to give labourers “basic independence and mobility”.

In interviews with workers, the group found average wages were $177-$245 a month. Mandatory overtime boosting working hours to 10-12 a day, six days a week, pushed up salaries to $300-$320.

However, some labourers were managing to repatriate less than $200 a month, the equivalent salary of a skilled worker in many home countries, the group said. Others were still paying off debts after several years, it added.

The group also found that a 20 per cent wage increase promised by UAE contractor Arabtec after strikes in May 2013 had not materialised.

Arabtec denied the claims, saying worker well being was a “top priority.” “In the past months, we have effected wage rises for our workforce,” the company said in a statement.

Gulf Labour acknowledged efforts to improve the standard of accommodation but pointed out that not all workers on TDIC projects were housed at the bespoke facility, which includes a “well-manicured” cricket pitch.

Although the site has a capacity of 20,000, it has never housed more than 14,000 workers, the report cited TDIC officials as saying. When the artists visited, only 6,000 workers were living there.

Given the poor communication between workers and management, the group recommended the setting up of workers’ councils to “evaluate problems”. Unions are banned in the UAE.

Gulf Labour, which also visited labour camps not associated with the museums, said TDIC’s Saadiyat facility was modern but isolated and distant from the rest of the city.

The group suggested scattering workers accommodation across the city as a “bridge towards a more healthy and just society . . . in which construction and maintenance workers might live among communities of more permanent residents”, it said.

This story has been amended since original publication to include a response from Arabtec.

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/eaa8605e-d200-11e3-8ff4-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3Sijj3x6u

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>