The boycott by leading artists of Guggenheim-Abu Dhabi on March 17, 2011, is a major step toward focusing attention on the exploitation of foreign migrant workers building the museum on Saadiyat Island, the United Arab Emirates, Human Rights Watch said.
More than 130 international artists, curators, writers, and others have signed a boycott pledge demanding that the Guggenheim Foundation and its Abu Dhabi partner, the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), protect the rights of the workers constructing the new branch of the museum on Saadiyat Island. They say they will refuse all cooperation with the project until the Guggenheim and its partner guarantee enforcement mechanisms to reimburse workers for any recruitment fees paid, and hire a reputable independent monitor that will make its findings about working conditions public, among other actions. Many of the artists are recognized and have exhibited widely around the world, including in the Middle East.
“This leading group of artists is making clear that they will not showcase their work in a museum built by abused workers, and that the steps taken to date by Guggenheim and TDIC are inadequate,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If the Guggenheim and TDIC fail to address the artists’ concerns, the museum may become better known for exhibiting labor violations than art.”
In a 2009 report, Human Rights Watch documented a cycle of abuse on Saadiyat Island that left migrant workers deeply indebted and unable to protect their rights or even leave their jobs. Each of the 94 workers interviewed for the report said he paid between US$1,800 and $4,100 in recruitment fees prior to his employment, highlighting the nearly universal acceptance of this practice in the UAE.