Artists to Boycott Abu Dhabi’s Guggenheim Over Labor Rights

Artists and curators from around the world have signed a petition to boycott the Abu Dhabi-based Guggenheim Museum until the government of the United Arab Emirates and the Guggenheim Foundation can ensure the protection of laborers at the construction site.

The online petition, signed by more than 135 people, said they will refuse all cooperation with the Tourism Development & Investment Co. and the Guggenheim Foundation until they disclose working conditions at the site and guarantee that laborers will receive recruitment fees.

“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,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mailed statement today. “If the Guggenheim and TDIC fail to address the artists’ concerns, the museum may become better known for exhibiting labor violations than art.”

Laborers in the U.A.E., most of whom come from the Indian subcontinent, have complained of working conditions that force them to endure long hours in scorching summer temperatures, passport confiscation by employers and withheld wages. In 2009, the government imposed a law forcing companies to give their workers a midday break for a three-month period in summer.

Workers’ Rights

The Tourism Development & Investment Co., the government company that is developing the island, said today that the Human Rights Watch statement pre-dates “measures already taken to further safeguard the workers’ rights,” citing an employment policy implemented in 2009.

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,” it said in an e-mail today.

The Guggenheim Foundation said today that while it shares the concerns of these artists, their accusations are “misinformed” and workers’ rights remain a “critical priority,” according to an e-mailed statement.

The U.A.E. Labor Ministry said in June 2009 that it would give employers five years to improve the living conditions of migrant foreign workers in the sheikhdom. The regulations stipulate that labor camps should not house more than 10 workers per room, provide around-the-clock medical facilities and locate toilets at least 100 feet (30 meters) from bedrooms and kitchens.

The Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, is due to open in 2013 on Saadiyat Island, or Island of Happiness, as part of the emirate’s push to diversify its economy away from oil revenue. The island will house $27 billion-worth of developments including a branch of the Louvre Museum, the Zayed National Museum, and a New York University campus.

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