Brad in Dubai: Will His Green Hotel Be Mean?

As the world’s best-known celebrity/activist power couple, Brangelina has forced paparazzi lenses to capture humanitarian crises worldwide, raising public awareness about issues like the plight of Iraqi refugees and AIDS in Africa.

Now that Mr. Pitt is working as a design consultant on an 800-room, “American-themed,” green hotel in Dubai, the 44-year-old actor may put the spotlight on the chronic exploitation of the estimated 700,000 foreign workers powering the construction boom in the most real-estate-crazy of the United Arab Emirates.

In early June, Mr. Pitt announced that he will partner with the architecture firm that won his "Make it Right" organization’s design competition in New Orlean’s Lower Ninth Ward, Graft LLC, and Emirati developer Zabeel—whose $5 billion real estate portfolio includes the Tiara Residence and Tiara Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah Islands—on what he called his “first major construction project.”

“Acting is my career, architecture is my passion,” Mr. Pitt said in an earnest press statement reported by Bloomberg on June 2. The Dubai hotel will feature “environmentally friendly architecture, but also embrace my career in entertainment."

In publicizing the green hotel venture, Mr. Pitt made no mention of the endemic labor abuses beneath the glitter and glitz of the oil-slicked emirate. But according to Nick McGeehan, the founder of the NGO Mafiwasta (which roughly translates as "without connections") who spoke with Mr. Pitt’s representatives last week, the actor-cum-architect is "definitely looking closely at the issue of workers’ rights before proceeding."

That puts Mr. Pitt in the minority in the Gulf, especially in Dubai. At the moment “conditions are appalling at every single construction project that goes on there,” said Mr. McGeehan, though he declined to speak specifically about Zabeel’s developments.

“It is not currently possible to engage in work in Dubai or Abu Dhabi without being involved in the abuse of migrant workers,” Mr. McGeehan wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “This is the message we will be putting across to Brad Pitt, backed up by Human Rights Watch.”

In a 2006 report, “Building Towers Cheating Workers: Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the UAE,” Human Rights Watch detailed labor abuses such as extremely low wages—construction workers earn a paltry average monthly wage of $175 according to HRW, compared to the $2,106 average per-capita income; routine withholding of wages for months at a time; and the confiscation of worker passports as security to keep workers from quitting (or “running away”). The workers, recruited mainly from South Asia, suffer physical and mental abuse at the hands of contractors and recruiting companies in both their home countries and in the UAE; live in sub-standard and unhygienic housing; are routinely denied medical treatment and consular services; and are forbidden contact with their families.

“In the worst cases, workers are in a condition of debt bondage,” Mr. McGeehan wrote, referring to unlawful recruitment fees levied on them when they arrive in the Gulf. “The confiscation of passports is so widespread (despite being illegal) that you will not find a single South Asian construction worker who has possession of his own passport in the UAE.”

An HRW spokesperson said that none of the construction sites they visited for the 2006 report had acceptable working conditions; companies did not report deaths or injuries; none of the protections for migrant workers in the federal labor law–including the minimum wage–were enforced; and companies were rarely fined for violations.

Since then, the government- and state-owned development firms like Dubai World have paid lip service to the notion of reforms and have, in a few cases, improved conditions. Donald Trump’s partner on the upcoming Trump International Hotel and Tower, Nakheel Properties, for instance, is constructing new facilities to house 600,000 workers.

The company has contracted a 24-hour medical service provider to give health care to laborers on the waterfront and on certain islands in the palm-tree-shaped archipelago.

The Dubai Labor Ministry recently announced that companies will be fined for violating the work ban between 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. in July and August. The ban has been in place for four years, but never enforced, and Gulf countries notoriously underreport temperatures so construction can continue in dangerously hot weather.

But HRW criticized the revised draft of the labor law released by the government last February for falling well below international conventions; and just four days ago the International Labor Organization said Gulf companies “continue to prosper at the expense of poor workers.”

The Labor Ministry has made no progress in adopting legislation that would allow labor to organize, despite promising to do so by 2006. Instead, the ministry formalized a de facto ban on collective bargaining with a September 2006 resolution forbidding striking migrant workers from further employment in the country for at least one year.

In a few weeks, HRW is going back to the UAE to conduct another study to evaluate whether the reforms are symbolic or tangible, but Mr. McGeehan, who is based in the UAE, dismissed them as a “publicity stunt.”

Since the government is unwilling to monitor and enforce decent working conditions, the ball is in the private sector’s court, which now includes Mr. Pitt.

The HRW spokeswoman said that when the organization has “informed high-profile institutions or people” of labor abuses, they are usually receptive to “hearing us out,” but HRW rarely succeeds in getting developers to commit to making changes. HRW often gives targeted recommendations to developers, contractors, and celebrities who have made licensing deals in Dubai on how to mitigate conditions for construction workers.

“We gear our recommendations to each party on specific things that they can put in their contract,” the spokesperson said. Though she would not specify the projects the HRW has been involved in, she implied that they have been in touch with Tiger Woods, who is designing a golf course in Dubai.

“We’ve been in talks with people who are in talks,” she said. “Some of our [recommendations] have been put in [contracts], but we don’t always get the whole package we’ve asked for. The positive thing in all this is that they are interested in hearing what they can do to prevent mistreatment.”

Mr. McGeehan is optimistic that Brad Pitt’s involvement “will have a positive outcome.

“He does seem to be interested in the issue of labor rights," he wrote in his e-mail.
“At this stage, I don’t think any criticism would be at all fair.”

Neither Mr. Pitt’s manager nor Graft LLC responded to calls for comment.

Brad in Dubai: Will His Green Hotel Be Mean?