Gulf Labor, March 2014
What is Gulf Labor?
GL: Gulf Labor is a coalition of artists and activists who have been working since 2011 to highlight the coercive recruitment, and deplorable living and working conditions of migrant labourers in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island (the ‘Island of Happiness’). The campaign focuses on the workers who are building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum (in collaboration with the British Museum). We believe that artists should not be asked to exhibit their work in buildings built on the backs of exploited workers. Those working with bricks and mortar deserve the same kind of respect as those working with cameras and brushes. If the Guggenheim, Louvre and TDIC [Tourism, Development & Investment Company. Abu Dhabi] were willing to invest as much energy and resources into safeguarding the rights of workers building museums on Saadiyat Island as they are on hiring ‘starchitects’, building engineering marvels, and buying challenging artworks, then their claims of building the best infrastructure for the arts in the world would be more than just words in the wind. Abu Dhabi, its residents and workers, deserve more than the ‘edgy’ buildings and collections proposed by the best museum-brands in the world. Abu Dhabi also deserves the development, implementation and enforcement of the most progressive labour laws for their emerging institutions.
What is ’52 Weeks’?
GL: ‘52 Weeks’ is a one-year campaign, which started in October 2013. Artists, writers, and activists from different cities and countries are invited to contribute a work, a text, or action each week that relates to or highlights the unjust living and working conditions of migrant labourers building cultural institutions in Abu Dhabi. One of the most high-profile actions so far took place at the Guggenheim in New York on 29th March 2014, performed by Global Ultra Luxury Faction (an off-shoot of Gulf Labor), who took over the rotunda of the museum and rained down mock dollar bills on museum attendees, asking them to consider the “sustainable cultural value” of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi.
What are Gulf Labor’s specific demands?
GL: Gulf Labor calls on all academic and cultural institutions building on Saadiyat Island to seek uniform and enforceable human rights protections for the workers working on their sites. These protections should specifically address five key issues:
- Recruitment fees and relocation costs paid by workers.
- Confiscation of worker passports by employers.
- Poor and unsafe housing and living conditions, even in the Saadiyat Construction Village that is meant to embody the highest standards for worker welfare upheld by the TDIC.
- Lack of freedom to change jobs or to form trade unions for collective bargaining.
- Lack of open platforms for workers to express grievances or abuses without fear of recrimination or dismissal.
At a minimum, Gulf Labor has called for enforcement of the existing Employment Practices Policy issued by the TDIC, including the appointment of an independent monitor empowered and enabled to make impromptu inspections of work sites and worker accommodations. We have also called for a worldwide boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi until these conditions are met.
Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) was appointed by the TDIC as a monitor in 2011 and issued a report on the working conditions in Abu Dhabi in September 2012. What is Gulf Labor’s response to these findings?
GL: Unfortunately the first report produced by PwC did not assuage our initial doubts over the firm’s ability to manoeuvre independently due to its business interests in the region. The report did not include any unannounced inspections, but did include formal responses from TDIC to all issues raised by PwC, indicating that TDIC were given the time and opportunity to address shortcomings prior to the release of the report. This methodology is unorthodox, to say the least. In previous meetings and correspondence, Gulf Labor has recommended a list of human rights organizations that we thought could act as sound and rigorous monitors, and we reiterate our call for such an independent monitor. Gulf Labor has also suggested the implementation of the Institute of Human Rights and Business’s recently drafted Dhaka Principles as a framework to move TDIC policies forward. These guidelines were developed within the business world, and do not place unrealistic burdens on employers, but nonetheless abide by internationally recognized standards of human rights for workers. Ideally, Gulf Labor would like to see either a workers rights framework like the Dhaka Principles or an employer code of conduct like the EPP enacted into law in the UAE.
Is Gulf Labor boycotting the Guggenheim worldwide?
GL: No. The formal boycott in which all Gulf Labor signatories are participating applies only to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. However, a range of positions have been taken on this issue by individual boycott participants, which include both total worldwide boycott and collaboration with local Guggenheim outposts on projects that will not travel to Abu Dhabi. Because Guggenheim acquisitions ultimately become part of a global rather than a local collection, however, some Gulf Labor members whose work has been considered for acquisition by the Guggenheim have either refused the sale or imposed a rider on any potential sales, specifying that any work sold to the Guggenheim may not be exhibited in Abu Dhabi until and unless the Gulf Labor boycott is lifted. While Gulf Labor encourages all signatories to take a similar position on acquisitions, we recognize that this is not possible for everyone, as it may result in significant financial hardships.
Is Gulf Labor boycotting other projects on Saadiyat Island?
GL: At the moment, not formally, though many individual members of Gulf Labor have taken this stance. However, it is difficult and in many ways counterproductive to separate the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi from the context of the larger Saadiyat project. Our most recent statement calls on all academic and cultural institutions building on Saadiyat to promote fair labour practices on the island, and urges the Guggenheim to take a leading role in drawing the other Western institutions involved – the Louvre, the British Museum, etc. – into this effort. There is also some overlap between Gulf Labor and the group of New York University faculty and students involved in organizing for fair labour practices at NYU Abu Dhabi. As we see it and understand the situation, most of the problems and challenges for improving conditions for workers in the UAE are structural ones. So they are by no means limited to the Guggenheim and do include other projects on Saadiyat and across the UAE. There are legal and immigration processes that place workers in a very precarious state with very limited rights and freedoms.
What is Gulf Labor’s position on labour practices in other cultural projects in the Middle East, or indeed in the USA, or anywhere else in the world?
GL: The labour practices deployed on Saadiyat reflect a more general trend in our time to put the so-called bottom line ahead of everything, including the safety and general well-being of workers and their conditions of life. As of March 2013, the US has a guest worker programme in place which is designed to provide the US with the low-wage labour it depends on without giving these workers political rights or a path to citizenship; recent strikes for better working conditions by guest workers employed by major US corporations suggest that this type of programme works no better in the US than in the UAE. These same dynamics and concerns manifest not only in different work sites in the UAE and the Gulf, but also in different forms in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Migrant workers are indispensable to a number of industries worldwide, most notably construction, and perform some of the most dangerous, precarious and least rewarded jobs in a predatory system. Gulf Labor’s sister group ‘Who Builds Your Architecture?’ works within the architecture community to raise critical questions about the responsibility of architects to the workers who realize their ideas. Why should 21st century cultural institutions, which spare no cost to have the best design, materials, technologies, engineering, and so forth, not value the lives of the people who will be materializing these dreams? The same questions need to be asked around new cultural institutions wherever they take shape; the Saadiyat Island project is a particular flashpoint because, considering Abu Dhabi’s economic position, the budget could very easily be stretched to accommodate better conditions and wages for workers, but has not been.
How is Gulf Labor organized? Is Gulf Labor funded by anyone?
GL: Gulf Labor is organized by a Working Group drawn from the signatories. The membership of the Working Group rotates; any signatory who wishes to join is welcome. Meetings are in New York but those outside New York often join in by Skype; many discussions and tasks are conducted through a listserv. The Working Group currently includes Haig Aivazian, Ayreen Anastas, Doug Ashford, Shaina Anand, Doris Bittar, Tania Brugera, Sam Durant, Rene Gabri, Mariam Ghani, Hans Haacke, Brian Holmes, Rana Jaleel, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Naeem Mohaiemen, Walid Raad, Michael Rakowitz, Andrew Ross, Ashok Sukumaran, Gregory Sholette, Beth Stryker, and Murtaza Vali. Gulf Labor is not funded. The Working Group donates their time and efforts for free. Occasionally members of the Working Group participate in a panel discussion or produce a text for publication, for which they receive a small fee. When available, these funds are used to subsidize Gulf Labor’s website and outreach efforts.
Are only artists involved in Gulf Labor, or is it open to other cultural workers?
GL: Both the Working Group and the larger body of signatories include people from all across the spectrum of cultural work, from artists, to curators, to critics and other writers, to architects, to academics (both students and teachers), to arts administrators and other people who make the visible labour of art work possible.
How will Gulf Labor determine when the boycott is successful?
GL: Success could be measured as either (a) facts on the ground, when an independent monitor issues a report that demonstrates that all five problems identified by Human Rights Watch and Gulf Labor have been resolved, or (b) demonstration of real will to change, when worker rights in the UAE are protected by an enforceable law, conforming with international human rights principles, and enacted into statute. With regard to the boycott of the Guggenheim specifically, our relationship with the museum is not adversarial. All along, we have maintained that we are handing the Guggenheim an opportunity to pioneer a fresh ethical profile for museums. Twenty years ago, the anti-sweatshop movement put the same pressure on globalizing corporations. As non-profit artworld institutions acquire global profiles, they will have to grapple with the same concerns, as will the artists who work with them.
== Following from conversations with members of Gulf Labor (Guy Mannes-Abbott and Walid Raad, along with Ayreen Anastas, Shaina Anand, Rene Gabri and Ashok Sukumaran) at the Sharjah Biennial ‘March Meeting’ 2014 ==