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‘Independent’ Monitor Releases Report on UAE Museums-Related Labor Conditions

by Mostafa Heddaya on January 7, 2014

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Screenshot of second annual monitoring report issued December 22, 2013 (image via TDIC)

Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), chaired by Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahoon Al Nahyan and a coterie of royal relations, has weathered its fair share of bad press connected with Saadiyat Island, a multi-billion dollar art-and-luxury hub on an artificial protrusion in the Persian Gulf. In the world of art, Saadiyat — site of museum projects bearing the imprimatur of the Guggenheim and Louvre — has been relentlessly watched by the Gulf Labor coalition, who have leveraged the research of  human rights groups to draw attention to the deplorable labor conditions under which these Western-branded and starchitect-designed cultural complexes are being enacted. Gulf Labor’s critique reached its apogee with a boycott launched in 2011 that resulted in a response from the Guggenheim and a series of concessions from the TDIC, most significant among them an annual “independent” monitoring report of labor conditions and the construction of Saadiyat Accommodation Village, a “model” residential complex for workers.

The first installment of the “independent” report, which TDIC chose to commission from the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), arrived in September 2012. In their response to the September 2012 report (which, they note, was itself delayed by three months), Gulf Labor wrote that TDIC refused to work with Human Rights Watch, or with any of the six independent monitoring firms they recommended. They further expressed “very strong doubts about PwC’s ability to work independently, given the current and future business they transact with government-owned companies in the region.” This rebuttal was largely met by silence, and PwC’s report was trumpeted by the Emirati PR apparatus as a vindication. (Numerous organizations, including Gulf Labor, Human Rights Watch, and the Guardian, have commented on clear human rights violations and urgent needs for further reform that are in many cases conceded by PwC’s gentle first report.)

Finally, on December 22, 2013, the second annual report — which was theoretically due three months prior, in September — arrived. The manner in which the report was presented — on the Sunday preceding the Christmas holiday, with a broken link to the full report in the press release — is not the most auspicious packaging for a message of transparency, and the document strikes a familiar tone. Like PwC’s 2012 iteration of the report, each violation uncovered is afforded a full response from TDIC. These mitigations are no mea culpas: in nearly every case the contractor(s) in question are blamed and allusions made to fines levied.

Of course consultants will turn the task of reporting on the conditions of powerless humans into a cheap chorus of praise for the autocrats upon whom their business in the region (almost exclusively) relies. But the Guggenheim has, for its own part, also been largely dismissive, or silent, in the face of reports on abuses. Writing in her blog, the art journalist Lee Rosenbaum mentions reaching out to the Guggenheim’s Eleanor Goldhar about the difficult evidence presented by the Guardian in a multi-part investigation of conditions on Saadiyat Island, which concluded the day before TDIC chose to release the report:

“The Guggenheim continues to raise these [workers' rights] issues in meetings with TDIC. We have no additional comments.”

Here again we see the slipperiness of the structure of intermediaries that has been erected, with each party effectively diffusing responsibility to the next: the Guggenheim, which has yet to disclose the total value of this deal to them, gets to blame TDIC, TDIC blames the (sub)contractors, and now, per this most recent report, TDIC has yet another layer of insulation:

During April 2013, TDIC undertook a restructuring initiative which resulted in TDIC moving to an outsourced model with respect to maintaining H&S [Health & Safety] management and monitoring of Contractors and Subcontractors. A [unnamed] third party service provider has been contracted to undertake H&S management and monitoring on TDIC’s behalf.

And as it gets ever harder to pin the tail on the royal donkey, no such elusions exist for the workers against the employers they denounce. In what appears to be a benign procedural footnote, PwC critically mentions that “Although the Contractors were aware of the names of workers selected for interview, findings from the interviews were aggregated to prevent attribution to any individual worker.” In an environment of collective punishment and instant deportation, where the scarcest provocation, the faintest hint of collective action provokes the wholesale dismissal and relocation of workers, is anything short of outright anonymity any way to collect data? Why should contractors, who are clearly the ones who bear the financial brunt of any adverse disclosures, be delivered a list of those airing grievances against them?

Though it’s too early to take comprehensive stock of the report’s many findings, the pressure on the regime appears to be mounting. Two days ago, The National reported that 80,000 workers are to be relocated to “special ‘labour cities'” not unlike the Saadiyat Accommodation Village. A step in the right direction, perhaps, but this summer’s bloody strike-related clashes at Saadiyat prove that issues of living conditions still intersect with other, larger questions of basic labor rights.

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