Guggenheim Deflects Gulf Labor Worker Compensation Proposal

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The Guggenheim Museum has declined to establish a settlement fund for migrant workers who may be illegally pushed into debt after being recruited to work on its Abu Dhabi satellite, according to correspondence obtained by ARTINFO. An e-mail apparently sent by museum director Richard Armstrong to members of the Gulf Labor activist group on Wednesday responded to an April 18 public statement by the group reiterating requests it had made for reforms in labor practices on the project, in light of the release last week of a report critical of labor practices at the New York University (NYU) campus in Abu Dhabi — which has been built on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island near the planned branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, as well as other cultural developments overseen by the Emirate’s Tourism Development and Investment Corporation (TDIC).

Among other findings, the NYU report — commissioned by the university itself, along with its governmental sponsor in Abu Dhabi, Tamkeen —  established that, though NYU did create a compensation fund for workers who were illegally charged recruitment fees to gain employment constructing the university’s campus, the payout had so far been limited to a handful of individuals, and the compensation should have instead been disbursed as a lump sum to all workers on the project. NYU has announced that a third party will now be appointed to appropriately compensate workers.

This kind of universal reimbursement is among the key demands recently raised with the Guggenheim by Gulf Labor. The activist group’s statement last week included the text of a March 16 letter it had written to Armstrong, which presented a three-pronged proposal aimed at protecting the rights of workers involved in the construction of the museum’s Frank Gehry–designed building. The letter called for the establishment of a $15 million fund for universal reimbursement of recruitment fees, increased wages, and collective bargaining protections.

The Wednesday email that appeared to come from Armstrong acknowledged that his institution has been in “constant dialogue” with its Emirati partners in response to Gulf Labor’s ongoing efforts to pressure the museum on matters of workers’ rights, but told the group that: “Your proposals for a compensatory fund, as well as wage and bargaining changes are outside the Guggenheim’s range of authority.”  It also criticized Gulf Labor’s focus on his institution, writing that the group’s “continued isolation of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi as a symbol of indifference or inaction is neither accurate nor helpful to our shared aims.”

The letter is being made public at the same time that NYU is reacting to the report on its project, which it commissioned with an Abu Dhabi government agency to investigate claims of worker abuse published in the New York Times last year. That study, undertaken by investigative firm Nardello & Company, confirmed many of the abuses alleged by the New York Times in its May 2014 story.

Gulf Labor believes the Guggenheim’s responses to the group’s reporting on the labor situation, as well as that of Human Rights Watch, have been unconvincing thus far. “There hasn’t been any kind of solid response, beyond ‘We’re on the same page as you, we want the same things as you … You have to trust us, we’re having these conversations all the time,’ NYU professor and Gulf Labor member Andrew Ross told ARTINFO in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “That’s a blunt paraphrase of the response as it’s always been [from the Guggenheim].” Ross was recently banned from traveling to Abu Dhabi, and a private investigator, working on behalf of an unknown client, has sought to discredit him, the New York Times reported last month.

Other members of Gulf Labor tell ARTINFO that its proposal, in particular the $15 million fund, was inspired by a number of precedents, including the NYU recruitment fee reimbursement scheme; a $14 million judgment won in February 2015 by migrant workers from India against Alabama-based Signal International; and the existence of a debt-forgiveness fund for citizens of the United Arab Emirates. “These are the things that we felt were positive suggestions. We felt they could be done without changing the law, without getting into the old argument that this is the law and we can’t do anything about it,” Ashok Sukumaran, an artist based in Mumbai and a member of Gulf Labor told ARTINFO by phone. “It’s not a new thing: the Nardello report makes it clear that the NYU fair labor principles as they were drafted are in contradiction with existing UAE law,” Sukumaran added.

Next month, Gulf Labor will present a publication as part of its official participation in the Venice Biennale. The report will include research conducted in partnership with institutions in South Asia on labor rights in the subcontinent, where many of the construction workers for Gulf projects like NYU and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are recruited.

The Guggenheim has not responded to repeated requests for comment, and has not confirmed the veracity of Mr. Armstrong’s email to Gulf Labor.

The full text of the email sent Wednesday follows below:

Dear Members of the Gulf Labor Working Group:

We note with interest your offer for constructive negotiations in relation to protections for the workers who will participate in the construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

As we have shared with you previously, the Guggenheim has been in constant dialogue with Tourism Culture Authority Abu Dhabi (TCA) and Tourism Development Invest Company (TDIC) about workers’ welfare, as well as in sustained conversations with other agencies of the UAE government and with international organizations that deal with issues related to migrant work in the UAE. Our focus has been  on continued enhancements  to EPP provisions and a general strengthening of enforcement, monitoring and reporting.

Again, please recognize that the main construction contract for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has not yet been awarded. That said, we continue to pursue substantive improvements in anticipation of construction and have had several meetings in Abu Dhabi including as recently as last month.

The complex global issues surrounding migrant employment cannot be solved by a single project, but we are working fully within our sphere of influence to advocate for progress. Your continued isolation of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi as a symbol of indifference or inaction is neither accurate nor helpful to our shared aims.

Progress on several fronts has been made, and we are confident that more can be achieved through sustained and active engagement and by raising awareness of the health, safety, security and fair treatment of workers. Indeed, we welcome the announcement of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute’s research initiative to develop greater understanding of the recruitment fees issue in particular.

Your proposals for a compensatory fund, as well as wage and bargaining changes are outside the Guggenheim’s range of authority. They are matters of federal law. We are committed to working cooperatively with our partners in the UAE to address these complex, intergovernmental issues.

We hope to work with you as well.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Update, 4/23 7:05 pm: Gulf Labor has published a point-by-point response to the letter on their website.

Mostafa Heddaya (@mheddaya)

(Photo: Mussafah camp, home to New York University Abu Dhabi workers, courtesy Gulf Labor)