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Guggenheim Says Artists' Boycott Jeopardizes Abu Dhabi Project

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The Guggenheim Foundation issued a letter on Wednesday saying that an artists' boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi was jeopardizing its project. One hundred and thirty five artists signed onto an online petition last week protesting working conditions for migrant workers building the Guggenheim's new museum on Saadiyat Island, including "unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages, and a sponsorship system that gives employers virtually unlimited power."

The artists had based their petition on a 2009 report by the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch. According to the report, which draws on interviews with 94 workers on Saadiyat Island, workers were made to pay individual recruitment fees to labor supply companies in their home countries of up to $4,100 in exchange for jobs in construction of the lavish tourism and cultural center developing on Saadiyat Island. Instead, when they arrived in Abu Dhabi, the report found that the workers made far less than promised and their passports were being confiscated by employers, among other things.

In the Guggenheim's letter to the organizers of the petition on Wednesday, artists Emily Jacir and Walid Raad, the foundation's director Richard Armstrong and its deputy director and chief curator, Nancy Spector, said the Guggenheim's partner in Abu Dhabi, the Tourism Development and Investment Company (T.D.I.C.), had done its own research on the labor issues raised in the petition and released a report with its findings.

"The report found that 90 percent of the workers interviewed held their passports and the remaining 10 percent had visas in process," the Guggenheim said in its letter. "100 percent of the workers interviewed were holding their employment contracts and in all cases the actual conditions were found to be consistent with what was described in the agreements."

The Guggenheim added that it thought the statements made by Human Rights Watch had painted an inaccurate picture of the progress made in safeguarding workers’ rights. The letter maintained that the Guggenheim's partner, the T.D.I.C., required its contractors to reimburse workers in full for any fees associated with their recruitment.

The artists' petition had asked the Guggenheim and the T.D.I.C. to require employers to reimburse workers their recruitment fees, to guarantee that workers would keep their passports, and that laborers would have access to health care. Accountability is also a key issue for the artists, who requested monitoring of worker's conditions as well as a transparent way of enforcing the improvements. Until the museum agrees to the terms of the petition, the artists say they will not show their works in the museum.

New York artist Rene Gabri, who is involved with the artists' boycott, said the Guggenheim's statement was a step forward in negotiations in the name of the workers. But he said it fell short on the details.

"We just don’t have enough facts. Why don’t we know who it is that’s monitoring? There are different types of monitoring," Gabri said. "It’s very hard for us to take everything at their word. We haven’t seen these reports or seen what procedure was taken."

Saadiyat Island, the future business and cultural hub of Abu Dhabi, is in the middle of a construction boom. New York University, Paris' Louvre museum and several golf resorts are rising out of the flat desert landscape. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is set to open in 2013, the last of the large-scale projects outlined on the island's Web site.

Update 3/24: The petition now has 1,058 signatures.