March 17, 2011 / 3:05 PM / in 7 years

Artists boycott Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in labor row

DUBAI (Reuters Life!) - More than 130 artists have said they will boycott the Guggenheim museum in Abu Dhabi over what they say is exploitation of foreign workers, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

Saadiyat Island, a $27 billion art and culture project, is planned to house spin-offs of the Louvre museum in Paris and New York’s Guggenheim in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

The artists will refuse to cooperate with the project until the Guggenheim and the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) guarantee enforcement mechanisms to reimburse workers for recruitment fees paid, and appoint an independent monitor of working conditions.

They include Allan Sekula, Doris Bittar, and Silvia Kolbowski.

“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.”

The new 450,000-sq foot Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, the world’s largest, and designed by architect Frank Gehry, will house a contemporary collection focusing on Middle Eastern art.

Citing Human Rights Watch reports on the UAE, the artists said the migrant workers were left deeply indebted, poorly paid, and unable to defend their rights or quit their jobs.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York said in response it was committed to protect the rights of the workers.

“While we share the artists’ concern for the workers, we believe that ... with respect to recruitment fees, the prompt payment of wages, the ability to retain passports, the provision of health insurance and good living accommodations and the imminent appointment of an independent monitor in May, their statement is misinformed,” it said in a statement.

The tourism company said: “TDIC can confirm that the company has a long-standing and deep commitment to protecting workers’ rights and fully respects and supports the artists’ role in campaigning for this issue.”

The UAE transformed itself in half a century from a small fishing and trade center on a desert coast into a regional business and tourism hub on the back of cheap foreign labor.

In February last year, New York University imposed strict labor standards for construction of its Abu Dhabi campus, limiting work hours, letting workers keep their passports and absorbing recruitment costs often borne by laborers.

Reporting by Martina Fuchs; Editing by Steve Addison

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