Christopher Shay

Protesters 'occupy' New York's Guggenheim over Gulf labor abuses

May Day protest took aim at low wages, debt bondage, poor conditions for migrant workers building Abu Dhabi branch

NEW YORK — A live reading of Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara’s project “One Million Years" on the ground floor of the Guggenheim Museum was drowned out on Friday when dozens of activists protesting labor abuses at the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi construction site began to yell out workers' demands — higher wages and an end to debt bondage — as they rained down thousands of red and white flyers from the top floor.

On the ground, dozens of protesters unfurled a red, circular banner reading “Meet workers demands now!” and began to "occupy" the space. Startled museumgoers jostled for their cameras as security guards began to tear the red banner out of the protesters hands, eventually using scissors.

“We request to meet with the board of trustees,” the protesters shouted in unison, “to bring the demands of the workers to those who can make a decision!”

The demonstration, held on workers’ rights holiday May Day, was the latest action in a five-year campaign by activist group Gulflabor. The organization has tried to pressure the Guggenheim Foundation to end harsh conditions for migrant workers at Saadiyat Island, a luxury development and cultural center in Abu Dhabi where a $200 million branch of the international museum chain is to be built. Saadiyat, which already features a campus of New York University, and soon a branch of the Louvre, has been mired in allegations of rights abuses against the mostly South Asian workers who live at labor camps there, often crammed into tight quarters, and toil long hours in the extreme heat.

Though each of the Western institutions building on Saadiyat has enacted a labor code that, in theory, grants unprecedented protection to workers in the region, rights groups say enforcement is lacking. Investigations continue to unearth widespread reports of debt bondage, with workers paying fees of up to $2,000 each to middlemen who recruit them for jobs in the Gulf. There they earn low wages, which may vary by nationality, and often have their passports confiscated in accordance with the UAE's traditional "kafala" system that binds workers to their employer.

Christopher Shay

Most parties involved, including the Emirati government, have made “impressive reforms” on paper, said Nicholas McGeehan, the Human Rights Watch researcher who prepared a report on Saadiyat earlier this year. “But the problem in the Gulf has always been about enforcement, not the law,” he said. “And the law is not translating into significant improvement.”

Shortly after the NYU campus was inaugurated in Saadiyat last year, an independent inquiry into its construction revealed that 10,000 laborers employed by a subcontractor had been excluded from NYU’s “Statement of Labor Values,” which were adopted under pressure midway through the project. In a school-wide email message, NYU President John Sexton said the university acknowledged "the lapses" and would "attempt to rectify them."

The Guggenheim is currently considering bids from contractors to build the museum, working with its UAE government partner, the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC). That's why activists say they will escalate their campaign in the coming months, to pressure the global museum chain to avoid what on Friday they called the "shameful mistakes" of NYU.

“What we’re hoping is that they can still choose the right contractor," said Amin Husain, an organizer of the demonstration who has visited the Saadiyat site and talked with workers there. "They do not have to follow in the bad footsteps of everyone else."

In a statement emailed to Al Jazeera, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation said it was "disappointed" by the protest Friday, which ultimately forced the museum to close its doors to visitors in the afternoon. 

"We have met with representatives of the group behind today's demonstration on several occasions and have tried to maintain open lines of communication," the statement read. "We share their concerns about worker welfare in the Gulf Region, but these kinds of disruptive activities run counter to our objective of building the cooperation and goodwill necessary to further change on an extremely complex geopolitical issue."

Friday’s action follows a missed deadline set by Gulflabor for the Guggenheim foundation to meet three demands: Create a debt settlement fund to compensate workers an additional $2,000, raise wages and guarantee workers the freedom to associate and organize. Gulflabor argued that the foundation could make these changes unilaterally.

In a response to the Gulflabor letter published on the group’s website, however, the Guggenheim Foundation said the three recommendations were “outside the Guggenheim’s range of authority. They are matters of federal law” in the UAE.

“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,” the letter read.

But rights groups like HRW say that process has not been transparent. And they argue that if the Guggenheim cannot guarantee fair treatment of the workers that will build its museum in the Gulf, it never should have chosen to plant its flag there.

“If you have any sense of just how exploitative and abusive labor systems in the Gulf are, the notion it would be possible to insulate yourself from that in constructing a museum without proper enforcement is pretty fanciful,” said McGeehan. “You’ve got institutions which claim to have values setting up shop where they don’t have the same values. It’s a question of who’s going to cede ground, and so far, the compromising has all been done by the side of the institutions, not the Emiratis.”

Andrew Ross, a professor at NYU and Gulflabor activist who was at Friday’s demonstration, noted that the campaign "has been in dialogue or putting pressure on museum for five years, and we really don’t have much to show for it." But he underlined that as the controversy drags on, the Guggenheim will only do further damage to its standing as a socially responsible institution.

“Part of our goal is to save these institutions from themselves, to give them the opportunity to redeem the damage that’s been done to their brands," Ross said. "The Guggenheim can very easily turn this into a success story for itself.”

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