A group of over 130 artists has announced plans to boycott the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi if persistent labor issues that have shadowed the $800 million project are not resolved. As the museum tries to build its collection, the potential absence of many prominent Middle Eastern artists who have signed a petition to this effect — including Kader Attia, Harun Farocki, Mona Hatoum, Emily Jacir, Shirin Neshat, and Walid Raad — could pose a serious stumbling block.
In a statement, the group said: "Artists should not be asked to exhibit their work in buildings built on the backs of exploited workers. Those working with bricks and mortar deserve the same kind of respect as those working with cameras and brushes." And this is not the first time the museum has been in hot water over labor issues. Back in September, the museum issued a joint statement with the United Arab Emirates' Tourism Development and Investment Company (the government-run agency that is overseeing the project) promising a number of improvements.
Labor abuses — which were first reported by Human Rights Watch in 2009 — include exploitative recruitment fees imposed by employment agencies that leave workers crippled with debt before they even arrive in Abu Dhabi. Once there, workers sign contracts for much lower wages than promised and find that employers have almost total control over them, confiscating their passports and threatening them with deportation if they complain or quit.
The artists' group has demanded that construction companies pay their employees' recruitment fees, as required by United Arab Emirates law, and that an independent monitor be appointed to oversee working conditions. In addition to the Middle Eastern artists cited above, other prominent names on the petition include Monica Bonvicini, Tania Bruguera, Janet Cardiff, Sam Durant, Sharon Hayes, Thomas Hirschhorn, Barbara Kruger, Matt Mullican, Trevor Paglen, Martha Rosler, Katharina Sieverding, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Not surprisingly, political artists such as Andrea Fraser, Hans Haacke, and Alfredo Jaar have also heeded the call to action.
On its Web site, the Tourism Development and Investment Company issued a statement promising compliance with these demands. The agency said that it has always worked with an independent monitoring consultant, but that "a new internationally recognized consultancy will be appointed to meet the growing scope of work needed to monitor the performance of contractors on Saadiyat." The agency also claimed to have "in place a robust mechanism to ensure workers do not pay recruitment fees to work on Saadiyat."
In a statement, the Guggenheim said that, "while we share the artists' concern for the workers, we believe that, in light of the steady progress that has been made…their statement is misinformed." However, Human Rights Watch told the New York Times that the new monitor would only track compliance with United Arab Emirates law and the agency's own employment practices policy, which do not meet stricter international labor and human rights standards.
"I've been to the workers' village, and the accommodations in themselves are peerless," Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong told the Times. Indeed, the residences for the more than 15,000 workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other South Asian countries were the sole positive development that Human Rights Watch singled out in its 2009 report.