Controversies United Arab Emirates

Artists boycott Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project

More than 130 artists, curators and writers have signed a petition demanding that the museum improve working conditions

Visitors view the Saadiyat Island Cultural District model at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi in 2007. The new Guggenheim museum is in the right foreground

NEW YORK. The Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi outpost faces a boycott from a group of 130 international artists, curators and writers who say they will refuse to cooperate on the project until working conditions for labourers building the $800m museum are improved.

The petition, published online and addressed to Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim Foundation and its New York museum, says: “Human rights violations are currently occurring on Saadiyat Island, the location of the new museum.” It cites a 2009 report by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, which says it “has documented a cycle of abuse that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, poorly paid, and unable to defend their rights or even quit their jobs”. According to a release posted on the Human Rights Watch website last night, “each of the 94 workers interviewed for the report said he paid between $1,800 and $4,100 in recruitment fees prior to his employment, highlighting the nearly universal acceptance of this practice in the UAE.” Most of the workers on the project come from the Indian subcontinent and live in a specially built housing complex on Saadiyat Island, which Armstrong visited this autumn and the Guggenheim says “has set a high standard for workers' accommodations in the region”.

The boycott demands that the Guggenheim and its Abu Dhabi partner, the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), guarantee that workers will be reimbursed for any recruitment fees they may have paid, and that they hire a “reputable independent monitor” who will determine if conditions on the work site comply with international laws and standards and makes these findings public. They also urge the foundation and the TDIC to establish “explicit mechanisms for enforcing the terms of the contract clearly enumerated remedies in the event of breaches, [otherwise] all efforts to protect workers will be in vain”. The TDIC had previously announced that it would appoint a monitor in May, but the petition demands that this appointment “be made as soon as possible”.

The protesting group says they will not display their work in the museum, and adds that for many this boycott will apply to all the Guggenheim’s branches. “These violations, which threaten to sully the Guggenheim’s reputation, present a serious, moral challenge to those who may be asked to work with the museum. No one should be asked to exhibit or perform in a building that has been constructed and maintained on the backs of exploited employees,” the petition reads. Those who have signed the protest include internationally recognised artists such as Kader Attia, Yto Barrada, Zarina Bhimji, Monica Bonvicini, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Sam Durant, Andrea Fraser, Mona Hatoum, Thomas Hirschhorn, Alfredo Jaar, Barbara Kruger, Emily Jacir, Shirin Neshat, Paul Pfeiffer, Walid Raad and Rirkrit Tiravanija. For a new museum that needs to build a collection from scratch and aims to focus its programme on contemporary Middle Eastern art, the refusal of many of these artists to participate in the project could become a serious obstacle.

"This leading group of artists is making clear that they will not showcase their work in a museum built by abused workers, and that the steps taken to date by Guggenheim and TDIC are inadequate," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "If the Guggenheim and TDIC fail to address the artists' concerns, the museum may become better known for exhibiting labour violations than art."

In a statement, the Guggenheim Foundation said it is “firmly committed to working to protect the rights of individuals on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum site.” It says it has taken “several very important steps” over the past six months to demonstrate this, including a joint public statement with the TDIC “committing to provide key core rights and benefits to all workers involved in the construction of the museum”. It also says the TDIC has promised to install “a robust independent monitoring programme” that will issue annual public reports and to “contractually require all contractors to reimburse workers for any recruitment fees they have paid to agencies to obtain their jobs”.

“While we share the artists’ concern for the workers, we believe that, in light of the steady progress that has been made with respect to recruitment fees, the prompt payment of wages, the ability to retain passports, the provision of health insurance and good living accommodations and the imminent appointment of an independent monitor in May, their statement is misinformed,” the Guggenheim adds. “We believe that the Guggenheim Foundation’s work with TDIC has been instrumental in bringing about this progress. We will continue to remain focused on this critical priority.”

Meanwhile, the TDIC has invited artists to tour the workers' facilities themselves and judge the conditions. In a statement, it said: "TDIC has always welcomed dialogue regarding its practices with the artists and those who are also committed to constructive dialogue about protecting workers' rights, and we will continue to have this policy as work progresses on Saadiyat."

This is not the first time the Human Rights Watch has issued protests against labour conditions in the United Arab Emirates. In 2007, it asked the French government to stand up for the rights of workers constructing the Louvre’s planned branch in Abu Dhabi, also on Saadiyat Island. And last year, it applauded New York University’s announcement that it will require all companies working on its new campus in Abu Dhabi to reimburse workers for any recruiting fees, bar them from confiscating worker passports, and require them to provide 30 days of annual leave, health insurance, and pay for overtime, among other benefits.

This article was updated on 18 March to include a statement from TDIC

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26 Apr 11
3:20 CET


This is very reassuring. This is something which the world has turned a blind eye to for too long

1 Apr 11
16:14 CET


at last a spark of humanity for the downtrodden workers in the gulf! now if it will spread to the rest of the Arab penninsula beginning with Saudi Arabia...

18 Mar 11
17:41 CET


It's only fair that all workers, in every field are protected. Each endeavour to bring this about can only be a positive step. Bravo!

18 Mar 11
14:28 CET


Strange thing is, the Indian Government are swift to condemn any perceived slight or bad treatment of an Indian citizen (or diaspora) in the west, but appear so completely indifferent to routine exploitation and abuse of Indian nationals in labouring jobs and domestic service in the Middle East. Labourers, recruited from mainly India and Pakistan, are subject to such poor treatment and abuse on many levels, as is outlined here. They are cheated of their agreed wages, and like slaves, cannot leave to return home, as passports are witheld. Well done these artists who are not prepared to exhibit their talent on the backs of exploited labour. India, who supplies its nationals for these jobs, and the Middle East countries themselves, must put into place labour laws and recruitment systems to protect their nationals and their temporary workers. These kinds of inhuman practices have no place in the 21st century. As the young in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are showing the world.

18 Mar 11
2:55 CET


good news!

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good news!...

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