Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Human Rights Watch questions Guggenheim museum labor

: Guggenheim museum officials have not addressed concerns about how workers would be treated during construction of a Frank Gehry-designed art museum in the United Arab Emirates, a human rights organization said.

Construction has not started, but the Persian Gulf nation has a "systemic" worker abuse problem at other construction sites in the booming region, Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Sarah Leah Whitson said Tuesday.

"We know how construction workers are used and abused in the U.A.E.," she said. "We know with confidence that workers are going to be subjected to these conditions unless the museum does something to insist otherwise."

Officials of the Abu Dhabi museum said Tuesday they had not seen the Human Rights Watch statement and could not immediately comment.

But Whitson said the museum foundation had failed to respond to numerous requests for meetings to discuss how to ensure that workers are not exploited.

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"If they ignore the abuse of construction workers so common in the U.A.E., they will put the Guggenheim's reputation at risk, as well as the laborers."

Last year, Human Rights Watch issued a report on labor conditions in the Middle East, saying the United Arab Emirates had "abdicated almost entirely from its responsibility to protect workers' rights."

Labor Minister Ali Al Kaabi said the United Arab Emirates was increasing its enforcement of already strict laws on labor rights and human trafficking and was increasing the number of labor inspectors.

While acknowledging the United Arab Emirates still had a long way to go, Al Kaabi disputed many of the report's findings, including allegations that the government was not penalizing companies for violations.

"Our laws are tougher than anyone else's in the Mideast," Al Kaabi said at the time. "But the lack of inspectors means sometimes we don't see these problems."

The United Arab Emirates already has issued laws addressing many of the abuses in the Human Rights Watch report: workers' salaries and passports held back by companies, dangerous working conditions, shady labor agents whose fees keep workers locked in debt and labor law enforcers beholden to connected companies, not to workers.

The United Arab Emirates' ruler, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, also announced tough penalties, up to life imprisonment, against trafficking in humans, which has illegally taken domestic servants, prostitutes and even child camel race jockeys into the country.

Whitson called the changes "cosmetic" and said the problem needed to be addressed systemically.

"The museum has the chance now, but they will be powerless to stop it once the contracts are signed," she said.

The new Guggenheim museum would sit on a manmade spit jutting into the Gulf from the currently uninhabited Saadiyat Island, which lies adjacent to Abu Dhabi. With a price tag of just more than $200 million (€136 million), the building would be completed in about five years.

Abu Dhabi, like its flashier neighboring emirate, Dubai, is a liberal, freewheeling city in the throes of an energy-fueled economic boom. It is quickly filling with luxury housing, office towers and resorts.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi would cover 450,000 square feet (41,800 square meters), making it a fourth larger than the museum in Bilbao, Spain, currently the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation's biggest branch.

Besides New York and Bilbao, the Guggenheim has branches in Las Vegas, Berlin and Venice.

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