DUBAI, March 21 (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates has improved its treatment of South Asian labourers on the construction of Saadiyat Island, a $27 billion cultural project in Abu Dhabi, but should do more to end what amounts to forced labour, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
In a report, the U.S.-based group also called on Western universities and cultural institutions that plan to set up branches on Saadiyat, which include the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums, to ensure workers are paid and that contractors who abuse them face punishment.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has previously accused the Gulf state, which effectively imports its menial labour, of turning a blind eye to contractors who imposed hidden administrative charges on migrant workers, pushing them into debt, and then confiscated their passports as they worked it off, among other abuses.
The group said UAE authorities had moved to ensure payment of wages and medical treatment for workers, who are mostly from the Indian subcontinent, a n d allow some independent oversight of contractor practices at Saadiyat Island. However, vi o lations such as confiscation of passports continued.
“Finally, Emirati developers and their international partners have stepped up to the plate on Saadiyat Island to start to protect workers, but they will need to do more to curtail the abuses,” HRW said in a statement.
The development of Saadiyat Island is one of the largest cultural projects in the Middle East but last year more than 130 artists said they would boycott the Guggenheim museum there over what they said was exploitation of foreign workers.
New York University and the Guggenheim and Louvre museums are among institutions that plan to set up branches on the island where they will be housed alongside a golf course and high-end housing developments.
The seven-member UAE sharply limits political activity among its own citizens, let alone migrant workers, and avoids the prospect of labour organization through a visa sponsorship system that gives employers broad control over workers. (Reporting by Joseph Logan; Editing by Susan Fenton)