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Front-Page NYT Report Confirms Gulf Labor Findings on Saadiyat Island

by Mostafa Heddaya on May 19, 2014

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A front-page investigative story published in the New York Times today has confirmed previous allegations of labor abuses in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), echoing the findings of the Guardian, Human Rights Watch, and, most recently, the Gulf Labor activist group. Though the piece focuses on the New York University (NYU) campus recently completed in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, the article repeats many of the specific observations made by the Gulf Labor activist group’s on-the-ground assessment — covered by Hyperallergic earlier this month — of labor conditions on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, which is home to the Guggenheim, NYU, Louvre, and other Abu Dhabi franchises of Western cultural institutions. The Times report, penned by Ariel Kaminer and Sean O’Driscoll, finds evidence of passport withholding, debts incurred from recruitment fees, violent interrogations for alleged labor organizers, summary deportation, and wage deception. One worker, the article alleges, was promised

a base pay of 1,500 dirham a month, or $408. After he arrived, he said, he found out it would be 700 dirham, about what other Saadiyat Island construction workers have been reported to make.

The Times’ coverage of the starchitecture-infused cultural development in the Gulf has been comprehensive, if uneven, with the front page playing host in recent years to incisive, Pulitzer-finalist reported essays and embarrassing, stenographic puff alike. Today’s story links the issues on Saadiyat to the ongoing activism of Gulf Labor, which has been discussed extensively in these pages and elsewhere. (This includes the Times itself, both when Holland Cotter addressed the February and March protest actions at the Guggenheim, and earlier in 2011, when the Grey Lady covered the original Gulf Labor boycott.)

The public relations effort against these allegations has also been underway for some time; the latest findings contravene NYU’s elaborately demonstrated “labor values.” These values were cited in a statement made by the university to other media this afternoon, which called the Times allegations troubling and unacceptable” if “true as reported.” The lengthy comment, which details the aforementioned values and reiterates NYU Abu Dhabi’s apparently high safety standards, ends in a hedged mea culpa:

And to any worker who was not treated in line with the standards we set and whose circumstances went undetected and unremedied, we offer our apologies.

Absent significant reforms, the Guggenheim is likely in for a similar humiliation.

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