Artists’ Statement and Boycott Brings Attention to Labor Issues at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Last fall when former Guggenheim director Thomas Krens quickly resigned from the foundation’s ongoing development of a new museum in Abu Dhabi, perhaps it was because he was either angered by the labor practices or saw the writing on the wall that trouble was soon on its way. It’s difficult to judge, given that his exit was handled with silence from all parties. However, with or without him, the news of abusive labor demands has gone widespread this week, with more than 130 artists, curators, and writers (many of them internationally-known) issuing a damning statement against the building efforts and signing a boycott “to end all cooperation with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.” Labor issues, which the group of protesters claim “leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, poorly paid, and unable to defend their rights or even quit their jobs,” have been a hurdle for the organization since late last summer, when the Guggenheim announced a partnership with the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) to help oversee the development and make sure workers were treated fairly. A nice PR effort, for sure, but the group feels that it hasn’t done nearly enough to stop the widespread abuse:

On March 10, 2011, TDIC announced that it “is broadening its existing independent monitoring programme” and that it had revised its Employment Practices Policy (EPP) to provide that contractors “shall reimburse Employees for any Recruitment Fees paid by them, without deductions being imposed on their remuneration.” However, TDIC also stated that the monitor will examine only [United Arab Emirates] and EPP violations, which of course exclude significant labor law and human rights protections guaranteed under international law. Furthermore, it has not indicated whether the monitor’s findings will be made public. With respect to the EPP statement that contractors will reimburse workers for fees, without enforcement mechanisms and a guarantee from TDIC and the Guggenheim, it remains nothing more than an unenforceable promise for which only workers bear the risk of loss.

These problems now providing the Guggenheim with some very negative press are unfortunately larger than just this particular development, as labor issues have long plagued the area, ever since both western companies and wealthy locals started building like there’s no tomorrow all around the UAE. If no one paid much attention to workers’ plights during the building of the Burj Khalifa, perhaps this walkout of such a large number of high-profile artists will provide more awareness.