Sunday, May 17, 2015

Art and Labour in Abu Dhabi

AT the end of April a group of trade unionists and safety campaigners went to the Qatar embassy in London, to hold a protest and deliver a letter about the lives and conditions of migrant workers in Qatar, as part of International Workers Memorial Day. The focus on Qatar is because of booming construction there in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

It has been alleged the oil rich kingdom spent billions of pounds lobbying to get the world cup , for which it is building a super-modern air conditioned 40,000-seat stadium and other facilities.  But the workers, mainly from south Asia, and many held under something like debt-bondage, have been working long hours in desert heat, and dying at a rate that suggests 4,000 could have died before the first ball is kicked.  

Qatar is not the only Gulf state where labour conditions at a prestigious world site have aroused international concern. In the United Arab Emirates, the Guggenheim Foundation is building a huge art museum which will be the centre of a cluster of museums on an island off Abu Dhabi. The Louvre, the British Museum, and New York University  are also involved in the project.

The American architect Frank Gehry writes:
“Approaching the design of the museum for Abu Dhabi made it possible to consider options for design of a building that would not be possible in the United States or in Europe. It was clear from the beginning that this had to be a new invention. The landscape, the opportunity, the requirement, to build something that people all over the world would come to and the possible resource to accomplish it opened tracks that were not likely to be considered anywhere else. The site itself, virtually on the water or close to the water on all sides, in a desert landscape with the beautiful sea and the light quality of the place suggested some of the direction.”

But Abu Dhabi offers other features not, thankfully, common in Europe or the United States. At least, no longer, and not yet brought back. As a report for Human Rights Watch in 2009 began:
Foreign construction workers in the UAE are subject to a sponsorship (or "kafala") system that places them in a highly dependent relationship to their employers. In conjunction with prohibitions (de facto or de jure) against unions, collective bargaining and striking, the sponsorship system grants employers an extraordinary degree of control over foreign workers, placing the workers at severe risk of exploitation. 

The Observer reported at the end of 2013 that the emirate's tourism development and investment company (TDIC), which runs Saadiyat island was "failing to uphold its own employment policies, with workers left destitute, confined to their quarters and sent home for taking strike action. Migrant labourers building New York University's Abu Dhabi campus on the island were found to be suffering even worse mistreatment".

The Observer's investigation found that:

■ Companies were withholding the passports of migrant workers, trapping them in the UAE.

■ Thousands of workers were living in substandard or squalid conditions in apparent breach of the TDIC's pledge to house them all in its model Saadiyat accommodation village.

■ Dozens of workers were deported in 2013 for striking over pay and conditions.

■ Workers decorating the university live in squalid conditions, with 10 men to a room, no free healthcare and some trapped because they have to pay back huge recruitment fees.

■ Louvre workers were having to work for nine months to a year just to pay back their recruitment fees. One worker who went on strike over poor wages was kept in his camp unpaid for three months and then sent back to Pakistan with 19 others.

The European council held a meeting on December 4, 2013, to discuss the growing concern about migrant workers' rights in the UAE and Qatar. The chair of the European parliament's subcommittee on human rights, German MEP Barbara Lochbihler, said migrant workers in the UAE, including those on Saadiyat Island, were exploited "on a daily basis".

She said: "Minimum labour standards are not respected, there are systematic complaints about poor accommodation and sanitation, salaries and medical services are withheld, and both experts and the migrants themselves report excessive police force and situations of forced labour. This is unacceptable."

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said the organisation was "deeply concerned by the abuses of workers' rights on Saadiyat island".
The findings reflected that labour abuses were a systemic problem in the UAE, with migrant workers suffering "extreme exploitation", including unpaid wages and excessively long working hours, she added.

Euro-MPs, trade unionists and campaigners, including many artists, have said the Western cultural institutions engaged in the Saadiyat project must take their share of responsibility for the conditions of the workers. Artists have pledged they will not exhibit until workers rights are respected and conditions have been improved. There have been protests at museums and events in the West.

These actions could be having some effect. It seems New York University has been shamed into promising to compensate workers from its Abu Dhabi site.

Some artists and campaigners who tried to enter Abu Dhabi to see conditions for themselves have been barred by the authorities. Gulf Labor, a international campaign begun in New York, has sent out this open letter on the subject:

Guggenheim, New York and Abu Dhabi
Louvre, Paris and Abu Dhabi
New York University (NYU), New York and Abu Dhabi
Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), Abu Dhabi
Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), Sharjah
Art Dubai, Dubai
Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, Abu Dhabi.

 This week artists Ashok Sukumaran and Walid Raad were denied entry to the UAE on grounds of “security”. This comes after NYU professor Andrew Ross was similarly barred from flying to Abu Dhabi in March. Given Sukumaran and Raad’s history of vital and sustained engagement with the country and region, invited or celebrated by many of you addressed in this letter, the only possible reason to suddenly have three such integral parts of our art and academic community denied entry, must be their involvement with the Gulf Labor Coalition.

All three are members of this artist-initiated group that has been working since 2010, urging the museums and other institutions being built on Saadiyat to create better conditions for their workers. One of the reasons Gulf Labor has focused directly on the Guggenheim is that as contemporary artists working in and engaging with the region, we have felt particularly implicated, and also felt we could have a say in the development of this museum.

Beyond Saadiyat Island, Gulf Labor has conducted independent research and continues to produce a body of knowledge around migrant labor, not only in the Gulf, but also in the home countries of workers. In July 2015, it will present a report on this research in the context of the Venice Biennial. Gulf Labor’s long history of constructive, and patient engagement with the Guggenheim and TDIC on this issue is documented on our website.

From the summer of 2010, six months before the announcement of a boycott, up to our last proposal in April of 2015, we have have tried to consult with, or address directly, the Guggenheim before making our positions public. Our most recent proposal synthesizes and brings together years of research and engagement with many parties ranging from human rights and labor organizations, to researchers and workers in the region. These remedies have been drawn from the experiences of workers at the Louvre, NYU Abu Dhabi and Saadiyat Island infrastructure sites, and is supported by experts in the field.

We have made this proposal at a pivotal juncture when contractors are meant to be hired and construction of the Guggenheim building is set to begin. Addressed to the Guggenheim and its Abu Dhabi partners we have stipulated:

 (1) setting up a fund to reimburse workers for recruitment fees,
(2) ensuring a living wage,
(3) allowing forms of collective representation.

We provided the Guggenheim a month to engage with what we still believe is a realistic and achievable proposal to improve the condition of workers on the island and to end our call for a boycott. An entire month passed without a response.  Now with these denials of entry, we are faced with a further retrenchment of the possibilities of dialogue and a foreclosing of the exchanges which have contributed to the development of the cultural institutions of this region.

We have always held that the betterment of conditions for workers is not separate from the development of conditions of making and showing art.  These denials are not targeting specific individuals, but potentially setting a dangerous standard of what can or cannot be done within the field of culture itself. And in this way, they implicate all the members of our artistic and cultural communities. Thus, we believe that it is an especially crucial time for institutions with expressed commitments to the region such as your own, to commit to lifting these denials of entry and, at the same time, to explicitly engage with the questions that these denials seem to want to evade – that is, the fair working conditions of the people who construct and maintain your organizations.

The specter of work has always haunted the making of art and the reflections of artists. To deny this engagement is not just a denial of a particular topic or subject matter, it is a denial of the history from which art emerges, which is from an inherent questioning of human activity in this world and the measures by which these activities are valued.

Links to Sukumaran and Raad‘s recent statements.

 May 16, 2015

May Day in New York - bringing it to the Guggenheim.

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