Sunday, May 31, 2009

The New New Postmodern: green buildings & indentured labor

Guest author Christopher Sell writes on Lebbeus Woods' blog Darkening Dubai: Architects named in human rights row

Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel are among architects singled out by US-based organisation Human Rights Watch for the ‘abuse and severe exploitation’ of construction labourers occurring on their projects at Abu Dhabi’s luxury Saadiyat Island development.

In an 80-page report published last week, entitled The Island of Happiness: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, Human Rights Watch found that, despite slow improvements in timely payment of wages and labour conditions, abuses such as passport withholding and fines are still occurring.

Under government developer the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), Saadiyat Island (‘Happiness Island’ in Arabic) is being developed into a £17 billion tourism and cultural centre, comprising a Nouvel-designed Louvre, a Guggenheim by Gehry, Foster + Partners’ Sheikh Zayed National Museum and Hadid’s Performing Arts Centre, all yet to be completed.

Human Rights Watch called on the architects, and institutions such as the Guggenheim and the Louvre, to obtain enforceable contractual guarantees that construction companies will protect workers’ fundamental human rights.

‘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...

In all fairness to the designers, architects often have little to no say about contractor labor practices. This defense grows thin however, as inhumane labor practices in [until recently] booming regions such as the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia are well documented - if under-reported. It's postmodern to the point of nausea to think that some of the most innovative architecture in the world [many groundbreakingly "green"] is being built by people living in near medieval conditions.

I can't help but to think about last spring's controversy regarding Daniel Lebiskind's proclamation to never work in China, and Architecture For Humanity founder Cameron Sinclair's passionate and eloquent response cum mini-manifesto for responsible design: "What is your ethical footprint?"

That's a question I pose quite often to young designers who are interested in socially responsible and humanitarian design. While 'being green' and sustainability are hot topics right now many in our industry seem to forget the ethical impact our structures have. It's a question designers at Architecture for Humanity struggle with all the time. Is my work creating balanced financial stability in the community? Are the materials I am using sourced in an ethical manner? Are we including the local skills and talent in the design and construction process?

I happened to stumble upon a debate on whether architects should work in China. It was sparked by Daniel Libeskind in Ireland last week and is now being called a "stunt". I am amazed that the leading voices of the profession are eager to pass judgment on the ethics of working in an entire country. What if you are building a health center or rural school in a country with questionable leadership? Is Libeskind therefore suggesting all Chinese architects are unethical? Where is the dividing line here and what right do we have to make one?

Everyone involved in this squabble are completely missing the boat. The real ethical dilemma our profession faces is closer to home – the way in which we build our buildings. It is not our just our environmental footprint but our entire ethical footprint that truly matters.

In Dubai and Doha, where many high profile designers are taking huge commissions, many developments are supporting and encouraging unfair and unsafe construction labor practices that are about as close to indentured servitude as you can get. Last year I visited the labor camps and was stunned to find 8-10 to a room and no access to clean drinking water. Many of the men I met had come from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and China – most had been away from there families for years and knew the dangers of working on site. In the UAE alone there are 2.7 Million migrant workers, making up 95% of the country’s workforce. Even a recent report by Human Rights Watch released in 2006 barely caused a response from the industry.

Why is this a big deal? A few years ago I attended a talk on violence in the Middle East. One of the speakers, Queen Noor, spoke about the fact that the insurgency and hatred toward the west was being compounded by the 70 million+ disenfranchised youth that are either unemployed or working in low paying jobs, such as the construction industry. It made me think about those sky-piercing structures under construction and whether the poor labor conditions that we are a profession are willing to overlook may come back to haunt us.

However I am still hear the current design leaders take a stand for those workers who are building these grand structures. Are those commissions are too seductive for any of them to take a stand?

Next time they take one of these gigs perhaps they can require ethical labor practices to be included in the contract.

I wonder - as the cash dries up in Dubai's sewage infested, cartoon-like celebration of the worst aspects of perverse Western decadence - will things get better or worse for the Sri Lankan migrant worker unable to go home and risking his life to build a skyscraper nobody will ever inhabit? If we want to think about architecture fiction, picture the Sheikhs cutting their losses, leaving the tallest buildings in the world empty and unfinished, taken over by a stranded population with nothing to lose and rightfully consumed with anger.

This affects everyone, and karma can be a bitch.

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