The long-awaited moment has finally come. Ten years after the project was initiated, President Emmanuel Macron will inaugurate the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island, the so-called “Island of Happiness” in the United Arab Emirates on November 8, 2017. The museum will open to the public on November 11.
Yet while brochures advertise a project whose roots are enshrined in tolerance and diversity, the construction of the splendid museum was tainted with controversies and violations of the human rights of migrant workers on the construction site. Migrant workers make up approximately 90% of the private workforce in the United Arab Emirates.
Human Rights Watch has called upon the French government and the Louvre to publicly pledge to protect workers’ rights and to ban forced labor on the construction site since 2007. Human Rights Watch has published three reports on construction sites of Saadiyat Island, including one on the Louvre Abu Dhabi, before its staff was denied entry to the country in 2014.
Our most recent report, “Migrant workers’ rights on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates”, released in February 2015, documented a range of human rights violations by employers: unsafe working conditions leading to workplace accidents and deaths, passport confiscations, appalling living and housing conditions, extremely low wages, or sometimes non-payment of wages. Furthermore, the « Kafala », or sponsorship system gives employers tremendous power over their employees and the migrant workers’ rights to association and to bargain collectively on their working conditions are restricted.
The last observations of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Committee of Experts indicate that in 2016, numerous passports were still being confiscated and wages not being paid in the UAE, despite the laws prohibiting these practices. Migrant workers also still suffered sanctions if they went on strike. In 2013, several hundreds of migrant workers were arbitrarily deported and banned from entering the country as a direct consequence of exercising their right to strike. These appalling working and living conditions are also considered to be partially responsible for a rise in suicide among migrant workers.
The pressure exerted by NGO’s and the international community has had a real impact, however: several decrees and resolutions aimed at protecting the rights of migrant workers have recently been enacted. Employers are now required to use Labor Ministry standard employment contracts; and the Kafala system has been partially reformed so employees can legally break their work contract unilaterally, if there has been a contractual breach, without being deported. The ILO has also initiated a program, in cooperation with the government, to train labor inspectors specialized in the protection of migrant workers.
These are positive legislative developments. But it is now crucial to ensure that the laws are carried out by expanding a system for labor inspections. It remains extremely difficult to assess the impact of these laws on migrant workers’ lives and on their working conditions. The crackdown on civil society is so severe that activists have been silenced and few workers dare to voice their concerns. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but also journalists and academics working on migrant workers issues, have been barred from entering the country and cannot follow-up on whether the legal reforms are being carried out effectively.
The construction of the Louvre is completed, and many consider the building to be a technical and aesthetic feat. But it has been accomplished at the cost of human suffering in a country whose rulers appear to still widely despise human rights and suppress any critical voice.
Behind the grand opening of the museum, the rhetoric about tolerance will be especially difficult to swallow, while the United Arab Emirates is, along with Saudi Arabia, one of the main players in the military coalition behind dozens of apparently unlawful strikes, some that may amount to war crimes, that have killed and wounded thousands of civilians in Yemen. The coalition is also exacerbating and making worse the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, for Yemeni civilians, including through its onerous restrictions on aid into the country.
The champagne and Jean Nouvel’s "rain of light" should not make president Macron, his ministers and the cultural community, who are so attached to universal values and their radiance, forget the human cost of this titanic project and the extent of the abuses for which the United Arab Emirates bear responsibility. President Macron should call upon his close partners to stop the suppression of independent voices in the United Arab Emirates. He should also urge the United Arab Emirates to put an end to the coalition’s severe abuses against civilians in Yemen.
Bénédicte Jeannerod is the France director at Human Rights Watch