Artists boycott is jeopardizing museum, Guggenheim says

Petition fails to reflects strides made in safeguarding worker rights, says Foundation

The Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is at the heart of the emirate’s Saadiyat Island development

The Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is at the heart of the emirate’s Saadiyat Island development

A pledge by more than 130 leading artists to boycott the $800m Guggenheim museum under construction in Abu Dhabi could jeopardize the project, The Guggenheim Foundation said.

Some 135 artists last week signed a petition to say they would not sell works to the museum unless the welfare of foreign labourers working on the site improves.

The group, which includes Kuwait-born artist Hamra Abbas and Syria’s Khaled Barakeh, said it was responding to reports of worker abuses such as unlawful recruiting fees and broken promises of wages, revealed in a 2009 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the Guggenheim Foundation said the petition ignored the improvements made in safeguarding workers’ rights and tackling the issue of recruitment fees.

“[This signals] fundamental changes in the emirates’ decade-long labour practices,” it said. “[The petition is] jeopardizing a project that promises to have a very positive effect in the region by casting a negative light on the Guggenheim.”

The Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is at the heart of the emirate’s Saadiyat Island development, currently home to more than 10,000 labourers.

The island is also the future home of a $500m branch of the Louvre and to Zayed National Museum, designed by famed architect Norman Foster.

New York-based HRW said in a 2009 report that featured interviews with 94 labourers on Saadiyat’s island, that each said he had paid between $1,800 and $4,100 in recruitment fees prior to securing his job.

The practice is outlawed in the UAE, as it places workers in significant debt before they begin work that can take years to repay.

Workers also said their passports had been confiscated on arrival in Abu Dhabi and their wages were less than had been promised, the HRW report found.

Last year, 14 workers on the island went on strike after claiming they had not been paid for five months by a subcontractor.

Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company, the state agency that oversees Saadiyat’s development, said it would appoint a monitoring firm to oversee workers by May.

In its statement, the Guggenheim Foundation said research carried out by TDIC in November 2010 showed conditions had improved.

“The report found that 90 percent of the workers interviewed held their passports and the remaining 10 percent had visas in process,” the Guggenheim said. “100 percent of the workers interviewed were holding their employment contracts and in all cases the actual conditions were found to be consistent with what was described in the agreements."

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is scheduled to open in 2013.

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