More than 1000 Artists Call for Guggenheim Boycott over Migrant Worker Exploitation

March 26, 2011

Since the March 17th release of the Gulf Labor petition letter, it has been signed by more than 1100 people, the vast majority from the artworld. Clearly there is widespread support for the intent of the letter. The result is largely what the original signatories intended–to put public pressure on TDIC and the Guggenheim Foundation to remedy the labor exploitation on Saadiyat Island. We remain committed to working with the two institutions until we develop and implement concrete, detailed, and fully verifiable procedures for protecting the rights of the workers. To this end, dialogue is continuing, and the results will be posted here. In the meantime, the boycott remains in place.

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Over 130 Artists Call for Guggenheim Boycott over Migrant Worker Exploitation

(New York, March 16, 2011) A group of leading artists, curators, writers, and others launched a boycott of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi today over the exploitation of foreign migrant workers building the museum on Saadiyat Island, the United Arab Emirates.

More than 130 international artists, curators, writers and others have signed a boycott to end all cooperation with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and are demanding that the Guggenheim Foundation and its Abu Dhabi partner take immediate and meaningful steps to safeguard the rights of the workers constructing the new branch museum on Saadiyat Island. Some of the artists who have signed the appeal have also decided to boycott other Guggenheim locations around the world until this issue is resolved.

“Artists should not be asked to exhibit their work in buildings built on the backs of exploited workers,” said Walid Raad, one of the artists boycotting the Guggenheim. “Those working with bricks and mortar deserve the same kind of respect as those working with cameras and brushes.”

In two extensive reports on the UAE, Human Rights Watch has documented a cycle of abuse that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, poorly paid, and unable to defend their rights or even quit their jobs. The UAE authorities responsible for developing Saadiyat Island have failed to tackle the root causes of abuse: unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages, and a sponsorship system that gives employers virtually unlimited power over workers.

After mounting criticism, the Guggenheim finally made a public commitment in September 2010 to protect the rights of laborers constructing its new branch. However the institution and, its Abu Dhabi partner, the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) have still not taken sufficient steps to better the conditions of workers.

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 UAE 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.

“We support the building of cultural institutions on the Saadiyat Island but we feel that it is our responsibility to do what we can to ensure that the rights of workers are protected.” said Emily Jacir, a signatory.

The call followed an initiative by NYU faculty and students who are trying to secure similar protections for the construction workers who will be building the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, also on Saadiyat Island, known as the “Island of Happiness”.

Among those calling for the boycott are prominent artists Emily Jacir, Walid Raad, Yto Barrada, Mona Hatoum, Shirin Neshat, Akram Zaatari, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Janet Cardiff, Willie Doherty, Hans Haacke, Alfredo Jaar, Barbara Kruger, Antonio Muntadas, Paul Pfeiffer, to name a few.