Museums and Universities Are Using Forced Labour to Build in Abu Dhabi

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

The Guggenheim. The Louvre. New York University. All have signed on to build outposts on an island off the coast of Abu Dhabi. And according to a new report from Human Rights Watch today, the development where these institutions will be located is being built with forced labour.

Saadiyat Island has been under construction since 2006, and it's been under investigation by international rights groups for nearly as long. This 600-acre island will be home to a number of projects that pair world-famous architects with world-famous cultural institutions: Jean Nouvel designed the new Louvre. Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim. Rafael Viñoly designed the new 2,000-student NYU campus. These projects are being built by migrant workers from India, Nepal, and southeast Asia who are summarily abused and coerced into their jobs.

Museums and Universities Are Using Forced Labor to Build in Abu Dhabi

The Human Rights Watch, which has issued a yearly report on the project since 2009, has been sounding the alarm bell for nearly half a decade. Yet, lo and behold, not much has changed. Today, the HRW released its latest report on the "dirty little secret" behind these projects, and it's not good. Though there have been some improvements, including policy reforms, those changes and new rules still aren't being enforced. A few notes from the 82-page report:

  • Workers paid as much as $2570 in fees to be recruited to the projects, but are not paid the wages they were promised and are not allowed to leave until they repay the fees.
  • 27 of the workers interviewed were living in a two-bed room apartment, where "insects were crawling around the kitchen, and there were exposed electrical wires wrapped around a shower head."
  • Workers' passports are still held by employers, who control where the workers are employed and whether they are allowed to leave the project.
  • Hundreds suspected of being involved with a strike to raise wages were arrested and deported.

Museums and Universities Are Using Forced Labor to Build in Abu Dhabi

Museums and Universities Are Using Forced Labor to Build in Abu Dhabi

A model of Saadiyat Island by Hoss69/CC; Jean Nouvel describes his design for the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2007. AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili.

Despite the attention of the international media and the world-class cultural institutions behind them, it seems as though not much has actually changed for the workers. "The western institutions consistently seem to say that they're not powerful enough to affect change in the UAE," says Nicholas McGeehan, who headed up the report, in a short video about the findings. "But that's a denial of the political reality behind their presence there."

Museums and Universities Are Using Forced Labor to Build in Abu Dhabi

Worker housing on Saadiyat Island. Andrew Parsons/AP

All three institutions responded to the AP today. Still, it's pretty unbelievable that cultural institutions founded to enrich the lives of average people through access to art and education have been complicit in this seven-year-long farce of a project built by workers living in poverty, unable to go home and unable to stop working.

Lead image: AP Photo/Andrew Parsons.