Human Rights Watch urged Emirati development companies and Western cultural institutions building branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim in the United Arab Emirates to do more to curtail abuses of Asian migrant workers involved in the landmark multi-billion dollar project.
The New York-based group said that although those behind the museum projects in Abu Dhabi have made important commitments, "protection gaps remain," such as a failure to reimburse workers for recruiting fees, which often take months or years to repay.
They are "the single greatest factor in creating conditions of forced labour," Human Rights Watch said in an 85-page report on the ambitious projects on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island.
Along with the Louvre and the Guggenheim, the island will also include a satellite campus of New York University, a maritime museum and a futuristic-looking performing arts centre. Thousands of labourers are believed to be involved in the construction, many of them migrant workers from Asia.
"For too long, migrant workers in the UAE have toiled in abusive conditions, with private and public developers showing little concern," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
"Now, 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," she said.
The group said that since its first report on labour conditions on Saadiyat island in 2009, measures have been taken "to ensure regular payment of wages, rest breaks and days off, and employer-paid medical insurance."
The project's developer, Abu Dhabi's Tourism Development and Investment Co., said the company "continues to be deeply committed to safeguarding worker welfare on its projects."
In a statement Wednesday, TDIC said the company shares the group's concern on the high fees migrant works are paying in recruitment fees to obtain jobs. The fees frequently trap workers, who mostly come from the poorest corners of countries in South East Asia, in debt.
The practice, "unfortunately, continues to be a challenge," TDIC said. However, it mainly occurs in the worker's country of origin, "making it an extremely difficult problem to address from the UAE," it added.
Abu Dhabi's plan to build the cultural district off the emirate's Gulf coast has been hit by a series of delays since being unveiled five years ago. The museums were to start opening this year, but in January, TDIC said Abu Dhabi's first prized attraction is now slated to open in 2015, followed by Guggenheim two years later.
Last March, more than 130 international artists and writers promised to boycott the Guggenheim unless authorities do more to protect workers' rights at the site. TDIC says it is committed to doing so.