There may be a few key art works missing from the Guggenheim's collection in Abu Dhabi. More than 130 artists have signed onto a petition boycotting the Guggenheim's new Saadiyat Island museum over alleged unfair working conditions for migrant workers building the project.
The petition the artists signed onto is based on data from a 2009 report written by the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch.
According to the report, which draws on interviews with 94 Saadiyat Island workers, labor supply agencies in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other South Asian countries with connections to construction companies in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), promised workers living wage jobs (and in some cases visas and plane tickets) with U.A.E. construction companies. In exchange, workers paid individual recruitment fees of up to $4,100.
U.A.E. law prohibits labor supply agencies from charging recruitment fees, but Human Rights Watch says the law is not enforced.
The report found that once the Saadiyat Island workers arrived in the U.A.E., employers paid them as little as 50 percent of the wages promised. The annual salaries the workers made averaged $2,575, an amount that was in some cases much less than the cost of the recruitment fee.
"The issue of workers paying recruitment fees is what we've identified as one of the single most important factors in their exploitation," said Priyanka Motaparthy, a researcher for the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, who has spoken with construction workers at Saadiyat Island.
The high debt the workers carried when they arrived in the U.A.E. made it difficult to have any bargaining power with employers, according to the report, and overtime pay, vacation days and other benefits were also much less than promised. In addition, much of the construction work migrant workers do is in the U.A.E.'s searing heat.
The artists' petition asks the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim and its U.A.E. partner, the Tourism and Development Investment Company (T.D.I.C.), to require employers to reimburse workers their recruitment fees, to guarantee that workers' passports are not taken away by employers, and to grant laborers access to health care. Until the museum pledges to do so, the artists will not show their works in the museum.
In a March 17 statement, the Guggenheim said: "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."
On recruitment fees, the statement said: "The contractor shall be solely liable for and shall pay all recruitment fees for an employee. No one involved in the construction of T.D.I.C.’s projects shall utilize the service of any agent or agency charging an employee any recruitment fee."
New York-based artists Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anastas, who signed onto the petition and traveled to the U.A.E. to speak with the laborers, said that poor working conditions for migrant workers aren't confined to Saadiyat Island.
"We do not see it as separate from other places," said Anastas. "The conditions of workers and how corporations or institutions deal with them is very important, whether in the U.S. with migrant workers, or in the U.A.E."
In addition to the visual artists who signed onto the petition, filmmakers, writers and other artistically-minded individuals have gotten involved in the migrant workers' campaign.
"It's a question—what it is to be political," Anastas said. "There is the non-separation and our life and our work. It needs to be connected, we cannot just put everything in a box. We become more successful when these borders are more blurred and we can think through our lives with our art and vice versa."
This is not the first time that the West has made a go at defending workers' rights on Saadiyhat Island.
New York University is building a campus on the island. In February 2010, after a faculty and student organizing campaign, N.Y.U. released a set of labor standards requiring, among other things, that the construction firms building its campus cover or reimburse employees for recruitment fees.
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which was designed by Frank Gehry, is set to open in 2013.