Gulf Labor Launches Year-long Campaign to Support Abu Dhabi Workers

Gulf Labor Launches Year-long Campaign to Support Abu Dhabi Workers
Shift labourers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi
(©Samer Muscati, 2011)

Activist artists and thinkers group Gulf Labor has started a 52 week-long action to protest against the poor conditions of South Asian migrant workers at Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi.

Every week for the next year a host of sympathisers will contribute “a work, a text, or an action” relating to and/or denouncing the ongoing human rights disaster put under the spotlight by Human Rights Watch in reports published in 2009 and 2012.

An estimated $22-27 billion is currently being spent on the site, which will host a campus for New York University, as well as branches from the Guggenheim and the Louvre.

Many of the workers building these landmarks have had to pay hefty recruitment fees in their home countries to secure their jobs, and arrive at the UAE heavily in debt. According to the HRW, employers routinely confiscate passports, and living conditions can be insalubrious.

Gulf Labor member Guy Mannes-Abbott commented: “Abu Dhabi is building urban infrastructure, cultural institutions and tourist facilities to developed-world standards using undeveloped-world methods: a cynical, unsustainable position and dreadful legacy.”

The group has been in contact with the Guggenheim since 2010, when it sent a petition demanding contractual guarantees of workers’ rights. It was signed by the likes of Yto Barrada, Ute Meta Bauer, Barbara Kruger and Thomas Hirschhorn. A boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi was also organized.

To respond to some of the criticisms, the TDIC (Tourism, Development & Investment Company. Abu Dhabi) appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2011 to monitor the situation. Although Gulf Labor acknowledges some progress has been made (particularly regarding the confiscation of passports), the core issues remain.

The group’s relationship with the Guggenheim Foundation has also become more difficult of late. “It’s got to the point where they are just belligerent and super defensive,” confided Mannes-Abbott. “That’s quite recent, so we were deciding in the summer how to react to that.”

The new campaign acts a collective response. The first piece, collectively credited to Gulf Labor, states: “workers are also artists and artists are also workers, we stand together in solidarity in our dignity in our rights in our strikes.” It will be followed by contributions by Sam Durant, Hans Haacke, and Walid Raad, among others.

According to the latest public announcement, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will open in 2015 and the Guggenheim in 2017.