Guggenheim, NYU Defend Labor Agreements in Abu Dhabi

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum

In a conference room in downtown Abu Dhabi, the scene resembled a circus: reporters yelling in Arabic, tempers stirred to a fever pitch as Human Rights Watch officials released a report on what the organization called the "abuse and exploitation" of low-wage workers.

Tuesday's report focused on Saadiyat Island, where institutions such as New York University, the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums plan to build their first Middle East outposts. Human Rights Watch singled out these institutions and the prestigious architects working on the projects, including Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Zaha Hadid.

As they were heckled by the crowd, Human Rights Watch representatives called out Abu Dhabi for allowing the mistreatment of laborers, alleging wage withholding and confiscated passports, and slammed state policies like the sponsorship system, a law in the United Arab Emirates that gives companies the power to control and cancel the visas of the workers who come into the country as their hires.

Both the Guggenheim and New York University disputed much of the HRW report, telling ABC News today that safeguards are already in place to protect workers in Abu Dhabi, and the rights of these workers have always been their highest priority.

In a country with few nongovernmental organizations and even fewer vocal critics, Tuesday's press conference was a rare and bold move for Human Rights Watch.

The report found that many workers paid heavy recruiting fees to an agency that placed them in their construction jobs at Saadiyat Island, putting an overwhelming financial burden on many workers who made an average of $8 per day. The result, says Human Rights Watch, are conditions akin to forced labor.

The organization puts part of the blame for the labor situation on the cultural and educational organizations that plan to build outposts in Abu Dhabi.

"These international institutions need to show that they will not tolerate or benefit from the gross exploitation of these migrant workers," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The vague assurances they've received from their development partners are hollow substitutes for firm contractual agreements that their projects will be different from business as usual in Abu Dhabi."

The Guggenheim Foundation, in a statement sent to ABC News today, said it is "reviewing the report with care," saying the issues raised by Human Rights Watch are being addressed.

"As we have discussed with Human Rights Watch and as is acknowledged in the report, many of the issues are addressed by existing United Arab Emirates laws and statutes. The Guggenheim Foundation's agreement with TDIC requires both TDIC and the contractors it hires to comply with those laws," the statement said.

New York University (NYU) claimed a key allegation in the HRW report, that NYU officials admitted to HRW that they "had not sought any specific contractual guaratees" for workers rights, is "simply incorrect."

"Protecting the rights of workers who will be working on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus has been a mutually-driven, serious, and frequent topic of conversation with our Abu Dhabi partners since we began to explore the idea of NYU Abu Dhabi in 2007," NYU said in a statment provided to ABC News.

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