UAE projects involving major western museums accused of treating foreign labourers as modern-day slaves
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 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.”