Wednesday, July 25, 2007

UAE Insta-Museums' Labor Woes

The United Arabs Emirate's plans for securing instant prestige in the global museum game by paying the Lourve $500 million to $1 billion for the Louvre’s name, expertise and the loan of artworks, has run up against the growing concern by international watchdog organizations for the working conditions migrant workers are forced to endure as Dubai and especially Abu Dhabi explode in new building projects. The Guggenheim, which is also building yet another satellite there is also being asked to stay aware of the concern. From

Human Rights Watch [HRW], the New York-based nonprofit whose causes include banning both landmines and the use of child soldiers, is keeping its eye on both the Guggenheim and Louvre museums. In separate statements issued on July 19, 2007, Human Rights Watch urged the two museums to protect the rights of laborers working on the construction of their new branches in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island cultural complex.

A recent HRW report asserts that the building boom in the United Arab Emirates is based on the abuse of South Asian migrant workers, who face "wage exploitation, indebtedness to unscrupulous recruiters, and working conditions that are hazardous to the point of being deadly." The nonprofit further calls on both the Gugg and the Louvre "to require that its UAE partners not withhold workers’ wages, not confiscate passports, document and publicly report work-related injuries and deaths, and forbid recruiters from unlawfully collecting recruiting, travel and visa fees from workers," as well as guarantee workers’ rights to bargain collectively, form unions and strike.

HRW has brought its concerns to the attention of Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens and Guggenheim board chair William Mack as well as Louvre director Henri Loyrette and France’s then-culture minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres. According to HRW, no response has yet been received.
Emotions run high on both side of this controversy, with workers striking (illegally) to protest conditions and UAE citizens arguing the whole thing is being blown out of proportion. Here's a sample of the opposing opinions posted in response to an article on the topic on the BBC website:

The Dubai dream for thousands of South Asian migrants becomes a nightmare after spending a few months there. The workers and labourers are underpaid and treated almost like slaves. Draconic rules exist. For example the employer takes the passport away from the immigrant worker. Hopefully, with the economies of South Asian countries improving and booming in the coming years, the workers will not have to slave in other countries to make a decent living.
Subbu Ramanathan, Indian, USA

The entire gulf region has grown on the sweat and blood of third world labourers who are paid atrociously low wages - some of them have to wait for 4-5 months before they are paid. There is a high level of suicides amongst such labourers, but nothing gets reported. The discrimination in offices is outrageous and frustrating. It is shocking that Dubai is being seen as a shining beacon when the truth is it has only grown to this level because it has discriminated on poor people...making thousands of lives miserable and wretched.
Peter Walters, Milton Keynes

Your article is ill conceived, lacks depth and is premature. I would highlight that competitiveness of Dubai has made pay scales fairly equal with many Asian expats in senior and strategic positions commanding competitive salaries. Globalisation drives this issue not 'quality' euphemism. Now that you are returning to your own country, you might highlight the gross and indecent inequalities and educate your readers about it. What beguiles me is the irresponsible manner in which journalists have painted Dubai with their particular brand of criticism, simpleton statistics without much substance and comparison. Exploitation was far worse not so long ago (pre 2nd and 1st World War) in the country that you worked in recently and across the Atlantic. Certainly, the many expats from Asia would not have to be here if their own countries could provide for them. You have also missed the point the many tens of billions of Dollars that are repatriated which sustains millions and provides a far more promising future. Your article has done a gross injustice to your country men and to the many that who have made their livelihood, a possibility that would not exit in their own countries. UAE has applied much change towards improving the conditions of employment and is taking major and rapid steps and I am confident that the present leadership has the vision and the goodwill to implement on an ongoing basis.
Mehboob Hamza, UAE
I've never been to the UAE, but folks I know who have suggest the problem, if it's as widespread as reports claim, is far from view for most people, so I'm hesitant, especially from the comfort of New York, to climb on too high a horse about all this. I'm still somewhat bemused by the notion of buying another nation's reputation for culture, and I've gone on ad nauseum about the imperial pitfalls of the Gugg's global land grab, but I think there's too little evidence to out-and-out condemn the UAE for offering immigrants jobs just yet. And there's certainly no evidence yet that either museum has facilitated any abuse or turned a blind eye to it, so it's prudent to simply note this is a concern HRW wants them to stay aware of, not an accusation of any wrongdoing.

Still, it is good to remember that all empires are built on the blood, sweat, and tears of the poor. Further, the $500 million to $1 billion Abu Dhabi is willing to spend to avoid having to build a reputation for their museum the old-fashioned way would certainly go a long way in the South Asian countries they're accepting workers from.

Labels: , working conditions


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Better to spend the money buying the brand name than on the labor. Slaves may build the edifice but they don't appreciate the contents.

7/25/2007 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

When you consider the grievances that the French Louvre workers go "en greve" for, that really puts it in perspective.

7/25/2007 10:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edward, thanks for highlighting this. I was completely unaware of this until last year when i saw a '60 Minutes' report on the labor abuses in the UAE and it turned my stomach.

Seeing video footage of the workers and hearing their plight left no doubt in my mind how horrendous this is.

I can only say to people like Mr. Hamza who wrote that letter: Would you let your sons and daughters do that work and live under those conditions? I think not.

When a person finds conditions acceptable for others that would not be acceptable for their own loved ones, you finally get to see the truth of the matter.

7/25/2007 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Slaves may build the edifice but they don't appreciate the contents.

Could you clarify what you mean by that? Absent any indication of sarcasm it sounds rather offensive.

7/25/2007 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Henry said...

People ruminate on why the Founders of the USA held slaves, and examine the labor inequalities of contemporary Latino immigrants, but a close look at the Arab world will give a person a sobering sense of how difficult it can really be to achieve social change on those issues. When one hires a domestic in the Gulf region, one puts that person's passport in the safe until their contract is up. That's standard operating procedure and has been forever. Everyone has a live-in maid, everyone has a driver, and everyone puts their passports in the safe for their 2-year term. Apparently this is still true even in the UAE, which is easily the most liberal and "progressive" state on the Gulf. If scrutinizing the Guggenheim's move to the UAE can make even a slight dent in this practice, I would consider flying to the new Gugg branch myself for the privilege of patronizing it directly, even though I wouldn't really want to go there otherwise.

7/25/2007 12:19:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

oh well another anonymous comment

7/25/2007 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger Gardenia said...

Good post! I'm afraid things will never change - so many countries' elite continue to get rich off of the exploited....including the U.S. Anyway, thanks for the out cry - perhaps if enough people read it and care, there will be avenues opened other than just writing letters to congressmen and the president that are ignored.

7/25/2007 03:58:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Further, the $500 million to $1 billion Abu Dhabi is willing to spend to avoid having to build a reputation for their museum the old-fashioned way

You make a good point, Ed--people will try to buy status, long before they are willing to pay for decency.

7/25/2007 05:49:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

And anon, whether that comment was straight or sarcastic, it is completely beside the point. It doesn't matter whether low-status people 'appreciate the contents' or not; they're low-status, they don't count.

< / sarcasm>

7/25/2007 05:53:00 PM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

i saw a bit of this on the 'wide angle' special called- The Sand Castle
His Highness Sheikh Saud of Ras al-Khaimah has a grandiose dream — a new capital city in the middle of his desert kingdom. Once an outpost for pirates and the pearl trade, the United Arab Emirates is reinventing itself, and Ras al-Khaimah, the northern emirate, wants a piece of the future. This program follows a Norwegian architectural firm as it bids to create a city on the sand dunes. It takes viewers inside the royal headquarters and a fascinating encounter between Eastern and Western minds — the emirates' ambitions and the architects' struggle to realize their demanding Arab client's mirage.
check your local listings for public tv

7/25/2007 06:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

don't read the anon. posts if they are so detrimental to your welfare [remember Ed turns on the enabler]. I do notice, from skulking around the premises, some of the anon. comments are the most liveliest.

A penny in the pocket sometimes has the most oddest way finding itself there.

Consider all comments a stroke of luck, or interest.


7/26/2007 07:55:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

most recent anonymous,

I agree up to a point (I do consider comments a gift). Just so it's clear, though, the open comments here are for those who don't disparage or otherwise dissaude others from feeling free to share their views. If your intent is to silence or intimidate or simply offend (which amounts to the same thing often), take it elsewhere.

I share Bambino's aversion to anonymous (as opposed to psuenonymous) comments: it's hard to keep them straight, especially from thread to thread, and when they're corrosive, I'm sorry, but, they strike me as cowardly. Choose a nickname if you're not free to use your real name, so readers can follow your criticisms, at the very least.

7/26/2007 08:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too hot to use the computer so I couldn't respond more promptly. Sorry about that. But my first anon at 10:20 yesterday was absolutely sarcastic. It is always the folly of the elite to think that no one but themselves can appreciate beauty. On a practical level, though, paying for the brand names and not the workers is the basic principal of museums. Who needs a living wage?

My anger about the country is rubbing off in inappropriate ways. Sorry, truly sorry, if I offended you.

7/26/2007 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Wasn't offended, Anon...just looking for some indication of emotion (my only complaint about online dialog)...thanks for the clarification and input.

where is it too hot to use one's computer?

7/26/2007 10:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Georgia. Airconditioner died. I tried sleeping in the refrigerator last night.

7/26/2007 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I tried sleeping in the refrigerator last night. have my sympathy. I turn into a raging maniac if I can't sleep because it's too hot. Hope you get the AC fixed soon. e_

7/26/2007 12:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edward you can't control the voice in open comments.

Here is a thought to the topic at hand:
Earlier labor concentration camps included the
typing pool: A group of typists who worked for different persons within the one company.
Today we can add purposes and agendas and can now even blow the idea of the one company.
The typing pool's Initial deprivation and control lead to a new kind of skill that opened up a diversity of voice and a possibility not expected, fyc.
If you and your spouse are unable to handle a little confusion in your routine and busy day please consider moderating your comments instead of confining the agenda, complaining, including handing down emotional and inexact accusations / ultimatums.

We wont all sleep better.

7/27/2007 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Edward you can't control the voice in open comments.


Considering the comment that caused the confusion was cheerfully clarified by the person who wrote it and any misunderstandings were cleared up, your persistence on this topic is a textbook example of passive-agressive chicanery.

My point regarding the tone of comments I'll tolerate is not meant to dissaude anyone from offering heartfelt opinions or disagreeing with me or anyone else, vehemently if one so chooses, but rather to maintain a civility to the dialogue here that makes everyone feel welcome. Speculation about me or my spouse, especially in light of the fact that our confusion was clarified (i.e., you have no apparent dog in this fight), then appears to be intentionally insulting. Personal insults are merely corrosive and contribute nothing meaningful to this blog. In fact they only serve to turn the spotlight away from the topics at hand and shine it on the insulter, to which I'll say again, if that's your desire, start your own damn blog.

7/27/2007 10:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I offered to the topic, elucidated, clearly.

7/27/2007 11:49:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If that's how you see it, then fine. We'll leave it at that. Thanks for contribuing.

7/27/2007 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger Mariyam said...

Dubai constructions are rising day by day in a very fast way.
Construction companies have many projects, and they cope with these tasks very successfully. Dubai property is a really profitable one.
But the question is do construction companies suggest their employees’ normal work conditions. It seems not. People have to go to strikes, cause their work conditions is so hard, salaries are too low. Construction companies have to think about it very carefully.

12/27/2007 07:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Dubai SMS Marketing said...

beautiful compilation.
and i love the first pic btw!

SMS Marketing Dubai

6/18/2008 12:11:00 PM  

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