When did the Gulflabor boycott start?

The boycott was made public in 2011, but several key initiatives precede that date, including a letter signed by 43 artists sent to the Guggenheim in 2010 seeking guarantees of protection for worker rights. This letter was sent out after members of Gulflabor consulted with Human Rights Watch (HRW) following their 2009 report on worker living conditions on Saadiyat Island. Several meetings with the Guggenheim also followed this letter.

Soon after these efforts, the TDIC (the entity overseeing construction on Saadiyat for Abu Dhabi) issued an important document called the EPP (Employment Practices Policy), which outlined a code of conduct that contractors building on Saadiyat should follow. The EPP is not a piece of legislation, but rather a non- binding pledge by TDIC to hold its contractors to fair labor standards. Unfortunately, even this non-binding document lacked both practical mechanisms to ensure future implementation of these policies, and independent monitoring of actual construction sites and worker accommodations. Following these shortcomings, the boycott was made public in March 2011.

What are Gulflabor’s specific demands?
Gulflabor calls on all academic and cultural institutions building on Saadiyat Island to seek uniform and enforceable human rights protections, and better conditions than are prevalent, for the workers working on their sites. These protections should specifically address:

1. Recruitment fees and relocation costs paid by workers. 2. Confiscation of worker passports by employers. (Though we recognize that this has appreciably improved in recent years.) 3. 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 TDIC. 4. Lack of freedom to change jobs or to form trade unions for collective bargaining. 5. Lack of open platforms for workers to express grievances or abuses without fear of recrimination or dismissal.

At a minimum, Gulflabor requires enforcement of the existing EPP document, including the appointment of an independent monitor empowered and enabled to make impromptu inspections of work sites and worker accommodations. Unfortunately, the first report produced by the current monitor, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), did not assuage our initial doubts over the firm’s ability to maneuver independently due 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, Gulflabor 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.

Gulflabor 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, Gulflabor would like to see either a workers rights framework like the Dhaka Principles and/or an employer code of conduct like the EPP enacted into law in the UAE.

If the recruitment and relocation fees are paid in the workers’ countries of origin, how can that be changed from the UAE side?
This can be done through a review of subcontracting practices, including limiting the number of times a contract can be subcontracted, and holding contractors legally responsible for the actions of their subcontractors. These same regulations would resolve some of the major issues with enforcement of the EPP, which currently only applies to the contractors who sign it, not the subcontractors who actually manage most of the work onsite.

Has Gulflabor met with the Guggenheim and/or TDIC and/or Human Rights Watch?
Gulflabor is in regular contact with Human Rights Watch, and has worked closely with their representatives for the region. We have been in regular touch with Guggenheim officials, sharing information and holding face-to-face meetings from time to time. Our relationship with the Guggenheim 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. As for TDIC, our relationship is more remote, in every sense. We have had conversations with relevant officials, and we would like more. We have also offered many solutions, regarding labor standards and monitoring methods, but there has been little reciprocity on their part (This has recently changed, as TDIC invited Gulf Labor to visit Saadiyat, in March 2014. See Timeline above for more developments).

Is Gulflabor boycotting the Guggenheim worldwide?
A: No. The formal boycott in which all Gulflabor 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 Gulflabor 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 Gulflabor boycott is lifted. While Gulflabor 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 Gulflabor boycotting other projects on Saadiyat Island?
A: At the moment, not formally, though many individual members of Gulflabor have taken this stance. However, it is difficult and in many ways counter- productive 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 buiding on Saadiyat to promote fair labor 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 Gulflabor and the group of NYU faculty and students involved in organizing for fair labor 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 which structurally place workers in a very precarious state with very limited rights and freedoms.

What is Gulflabor’s position on labor practices in other cultural projects in the Middle East? In the US? Elsewhere in the world?
The labor 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 program in place which is designed to provide the US with the low-wage labor 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 program 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. Gulflabor’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.

With regards to existing institutions, some members of Gulflabor have also been involved recently in supporting the struggle of Sotheby’s art handlers. Sotheby’s decided to lockout its unionized art handlers in New York and tried to force them to agree to a lesser contract even though by all accounts art sales are booming even in this age of austerity. The art handlers’ struggle for a better contract was successful, as the pressure from the workers and the many who acted in solidarity, even taking actions at MOMA and the Whitney Museum, forced Sotheby’s to see that it was far more costly for them to continue the lockout, than to offer fair terms to its workers.

How is Gulflabor organized? Is Guflabor funded by anyone?
Gulflabor 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 Bruguera, 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.

Gulflabor is not funded. The Working Group donates their time and efforts. 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 Gulflabor’s website and outreach efforts.

What is 52 Weeks of Gulf Labor?
“52 Weeks” is a one year campaign starting 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 coercive recruitment, and deplorable living and working conditions of migrant laborers in Abu Dhabi who are building the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum (in collaboration with the British Museum).

Are only artists involved in Gulflabor, or is it composed of / open to other cultural workers?
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 labor of art work possible.

How will Gulflabor determine when the boycott is successful?
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 HRW and Gulflabor 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.

4 thoughts on “FAQ”

  1. Hello there,

    I am trying to get in touch to interview you as part of an article I’m writing on the controversial Louvre Abu Dhabi. The email listed on this site doesn’t seem to be working for me! Is there an alternative way I could contact you? It would be really great to talk. Please do get in touch if you are interested in being interviewed: emily.cashen@wnmedia.com

    All the best,

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