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Mussafah camp, home to New York University Abu Dhabi workers (image courtesy Gulf Labor)

A United Nations body is investigating the alleged abuse of laborers on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, site of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi projects, among other museum and cultural developments, the Guardian reported. The decision, made by the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO), follows allegations of “exploitative practices that may amount to forced labour” presented by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) earlier this year.

The ITUC accused the United Arab Emirates — a 30-year member of the ILO recently appointed to the agency’s governing board — of violating safeguards against labor abuse, particularly targeting the visa-sponsorship kafala system driving the payment of recruitment fees to individual sponsors, who may in turn illegally garnish wages or withhold passports.

“The ITUC complaint drew on the report we issued that documented Gulf Labor’s research trip to the UAE labor camps earlier this year, and we also provided additional documentation in response to an ITUC request,” Andrew Ross, a professor of sociology at New York University (NYU) and member of Gulf Labor, told Hyperallergic, referring to a May 2014 report published by the group, which has been critical of the Guggenheim’s relationship to the alleged labor violations. Ross continued:

At our last meeting, several months ago, with the museum director [Richard Armstrong], we urged that the Guggenheim petition the Abu Dhabi authorities to (re)invite the ILO to the UAE to sit down and negotiate reforms to the kafala system. Gulf Labor believes that the ILO is the appropriate body to do so, and the museum has a stakeholder’s right to petition for this to happen. We have not heard from the museum since.

A number of journalistic and NGO investigations have joined Gulf Labor in finding instances of labor abuse on Saadiyat Island, including a front-page New York Times story about NYU Abu Dhabi earlier this year and a Guardian report last year on the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC). A Human Rights Watch report “expected to support the findings” — per the Guardian — is due in January.

A TDIC spokesperson told the Guardian the organization would “co-operate with all relevant entities [about] worker welfare.” A video released on November 27 on an apparently independent website was circulated by the TDIC Twitter account on November 30, the day after the Guardian announced the ILO investigation. The 15-minute-long video purports to present the “untold story of Saadiyat workers,” and paints a flattering picture of TDIC labor conditions.

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Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.