Guggenheim responds, nothing has changed

The below is a response from the Guggenheim Foundation to our letters of March 16 and April 18.  In point form below that, are Gulf Labor’s preliminary notes on what we consider an empty and factually incorrect missive from the Guggenheim. Points responded to are in bold (our emphases).  A more detailed response will follow shortly.

_________ Dated April 22, 2015

Dear Members of the Gulf Labor Working Group:

We note with interest your offer for constructive negotiations in relation to protections for the workers who will participate in the construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

As we have shared with you previously, the Guggenheim has been in constant dialogue with Tourism Culture Authority Abu Dhabi (TCA) and Tourism Development Invest Company (TDIC) about workers’ welfare, as well as in sustained conversations with other agencies of the UAE government and with international organizations that deal with issues related to migrant work in the UAE. Our focus has been on continued enhancements  to EPP provisions and a general strengthening of enforcement, monitoring and reporting.

Again, please recognize that the main construction contract for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has not yet been awarded. That said, we continue to pursue substantive improvements in anticipation of construction and have had several meetings in Abu Dhabi including as recently as last month.

The complex global issues surrounding migrant employment cannot be solved by a single project, but we are working fully within our sphere of influence to advocate for progress. Your continued isolation of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi as a symbol of indifference or inaction is neither accurate nor helpful to our shared aims.

Progress on several fronts has been made, and we are confident that more can be achieved through sustained and active engagement and by raising awareness of the health, safety, security and fair treatment of workers. Indeed, we welcome the announcement of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute’s research initiative to develop greater understanding of the recruitment fees issue in particular.

Your proposals for a compensatory fund, as well as wage and bargaining changes are outside the Guggenheim’s range of authority. They are matters of federal law. We are committed to working cooperatively with our partners in the UAE to address these complex, intergovernmental issues.

We hope to work with you as well.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation


________ Gulf Labor’s preliminary response, April 23, 2015:

1. It is within the Guggenheim’s powers to initiate a worker’s debt fund. The EPP (Employment Practices Policy) on its own project states: “15.2 Recruitment Fees. The Contractor shall reimburse Employees for any Recruitment Fees paid by them, without deductions being imposed on their remuneration.”  Do the Guggenheim and its UAE partners intend to honor this clause, or change it?
2.  It is within the Guggenheim’s authority to seek decent wages and conditions for workers building its museum, in the same way it is within its authority to seek that the museum building is built to the right specifications.  These standards must be built into the contracting and monitoring systems that are being put into place as we speak.
3. None of the above require changes in UAE federal law. In what sense are they “matters of federal law”?
4. We agree that the Guggenheim should not be isolated. We have been approaching it because it is part of our community. Similarly, NYU Abu Dhabi on the same campus has been approached by its community, which overlaps with ours. The NYUAD example this week showed us that “progress on several fronts” has not been made. It is quite shameful, not “welcome” to now initiate research and compensation schemes after 30,000 workers over 5 years have paid out an average of 2,000 USD in recruitment fees, and received an average of 217 USD a month in wages. Proactive steps have to be taken, but it is still not clear what those steps will be for the Guggenheim. What has the Guggenheim’s “constant dialogue” with the Abu Dhabi authorities including its partners the Tourism and Culture Authority and the Tourism Development and Investment Company (both misspelt in your letter) yielded? Why is there such a shortage of positive imagination on workers’ welfare issues?

5.  Whatever result may come on a governmental level or by involving international organizations, it is still up to institutions such as the Guggenheim to make clear their mechanisms for insuring that workers will not be abused on their sites –  in the building process as well as in their daily operations. It is evident by the findings of the Nardello report that institutions such as NYU will have to respond substantively to shortcomings of law or implementation of policies. The question is whether the Guggenheim, the Louvre or the British Museum for that matter, will be taking these measures in advance or after the fact to save face. We hope the former.
A more detailed response will be available shortly. 



Two letters to the Guggenheim: how do you plan to not repeat the shameful mistakes of NYU?

Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation
Nancy Spector, Deputy Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

April 18, 2015

Dear Richard and Nancy,

We sent a letter to you on March 16, 2015, with three specific proposals. Namely –
the reimbursement of workers recruitment fees by creation of a Debt Settlement Fund, the establishment of a fair wage based on published and ongoing scholarly research, and the guarantee of workers rights to collectively address grievances, on Saadiyat Island. We stated that a positive response could lead us in the direction of the boycott being lifted.

We also asked for a clear and transparent response to these proposals by April 15. Despite the assurance that you would get back “after Richard’s return from Abu Dhabi, where he is currently meeting about labor issues” we have not heard back from you.

Yesterday, Nardello and Co’s report on the construction of NYU Abu Dhabi was published. It makes clear that the protection of workers against abuse failed on several counts, for about 10,000 workers, on the grounds of Saadiyat Island over the past five years. Many of their findings are consistent with what we and other reporters have been saying is wrong on Saadiyat Island.

For example on the issue of reimbursement of “1,000 to 3,000 USD” recruitment fees paid by practically all workers, and on the fact that only 20 out of 30,000 workers were actually reimbursed, the report states:
If the intention of the Labor Guidelines concerning recruitment fees was to release workers from the debt that effectively bound them to their UAE employers, then reimbursement should have been provided under guidelines that reflected the complexities of the situation, rather than interpretations that effectively disqualified all workers from reimbursement. In practice, this would have involved providing a lump sum amount – without requiring proof of payment – to all workers on the Main Campus Project.”

On the matter of workers right to express and resolve grievances collectively, the report found that the NYU Statement of Labor Values’ “edict that ‘no worker shall be subject to harassment, intimidation, or retaliation in their efforts to resolve work disputes’ is at odds with UAE’s criminalization of striking, the most powerful tool workers have to address grievances.” The report recommends that “It is essential that workers have a confidential reporting channel to the compliance monitor that allows them to address grievances without the employer’s knowledge”.

If all this seems like familiar language, it is because so little has effectively changed on Saadiyat Island. For example on the longstanding matter of passport confiscation which seems far from satisfactorily resolved, the report acknowledges that workers do not have sufficient control over their own passports, and should be provided with “access to fireproof and easily accessible lock boxes”.

There is by now an inescapable body of facts about labor conditions on Saadiyat Island, which have been essentially reiterated by report after report, whether issued by corporate, human rights or media agencies, over the past decade. Gulf Labor’s three proposals address recruitment debt, poor wages and the workers right to collective negotiation, all of which have NOT improved over all these years. The NYU Abu Dhabi example shows us again that merely drafting a policy and hoping for a better monitoring process has not worked, and proactive steps have to be taken, or else the abuse continues. NYU today stated that they will retroactively compensate thousands of affected workers who worked on their Saadiyat campus. Gulf Labor has outlined clearly what some more proactive steps can be, concretely. What does the Guggenheim intend to do, concretely?

In the hope of receiving a long-overdue response to this rather straightforward question, we are now making this and our original letter, reproduced below, public.


Gulf Labor Working Group


____________________ letter dated March 16, 2015

Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation
Nancy Spector, Deputy Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Dear Richard and Nancy,

With this letter, Gulf Labor is asking that the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi take independent action to ensure that the workers who are building the museum are not exploited. It seems clear to us that such action must be taken before construction begins.

Gulf Labor proposes that:

1. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi create a Debt Settlement Fund (DSF) to compensate every worker who is building its museum on Saadiyat Island an additional $2,000 on top of wages earned (or, assuming an aggregate workforce of 7500—as in the case of the Louvre — around $15 million in additional total payments to workers). The DSF will address one of the most intractable labor problems in the UAE: recruitment debt. Independent investigators have established that the average recruitment debt burden per worker is $2000. (1)

2. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi ensures a fair wage for all workers employed on its construction site. Recent scholarly analysis of the UAE migrant labor market has demonstrated that wages are depressed by at least 25% relative to previous levels of compensation. (2) Moreover, our own research has found great disparities among workers, based on the place of origin, caste and community and terms of contract, even for the same work. We will work with the museum to establish a living wage for all workers on the site. This living wage will compensate both for the 25% wage depression and for the disparities cited above.

3. Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will work to guarantee workers have the freedom to associate and the right to collectively address grievances. This will prevent the growing cycle of intimidation and violence, imprisonment and deportation that has taken place, especially since 2013.

Gulf Labor remains dedicated to thinking creatively about solutions for insuring fair conditions for the workers on Saadiyat Island. We are open to constructive negotiations, including the possibility of lifting the boycott.

Gulf Labor believes that this proposal is in the interests of all parties concerned: the workers, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, Abu Dhabi’s Tourism and Culture Authority, and the Tourism Development Investment Corporation (TDIC).

In the hopes of keeping the doors open to further negotiations, Gulf Labor strongly urges the Guggenheim to provide a clear, proactive and transparent answer to this proposal by April 15, 2015. Time is of the essence.


Gulf Labor Working Group







Drop charges against Tania Bruguera and friends


With this letter, we express our profound concern for fellow Gulf Labor Coalition member Tania Bruguera who remains under house arrest in Havana since visiting her home country last December (2014). We join with artists around the world in urging the government of Cuba to drop all charges against Tania Bruguera, Angel Santiesteban, and Danilo Maldonado El Sexto.

Gulf Labor Coalition


The Men in the Middle

© Molly Crabapple

© Molly Crabapple

“These are the men behind the gravity-defying towers shooting out of the ground in Dubai. Their labor is also responsible for building the World Cup infrastructure in Doha, the Guggenheim museum and a New York University campus on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, and the endless malls, luxury hotels, and other monuments to late capitalism that dot the oil-rich cities of this peninsula.”
Continue reading

Gulf Labor: “Guggenheim Continues to Treat Worker Abuse as PR Problem”

Gulf Labor: “Recent activities appear focused more on “image management,” including the hiring of the PR firm Brunswick Group to respond to the activities of groups and individuals that raise issues relating to labor conditions on Saadiyat Island. Chairman William L. Mack, and President Jennifer Blei Stockman of the Guggenheim Foundation’s Board of Trustees, as well as those advising the authorities in Abu Dhabi and TDIC, need to recognize that this issue cannot be solved by treating it as a public relations problem.” Continue reading