Sunday, 27 October 2013

Health, work, dignity, livelihood: 52 Weeks project by Gulf Labor group protests the working conditions of migrant labourers in Abu Dhabi

Gulf Labor is a coalition of artists and activists who have been working since 2011 to highlight the coercive recruitment, and unjust living and working conditions of migrant laborers in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island - translated as the Island of Happiness. Their 52 Weeks campaign focuses on the workers who are building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum (in collaboration with the British Museum).

Image of Gulf workers (c) Human Rights Watch

52 Weeks is a one year campaign which has just launched. Artists, writers and activists from different cities and countries are invited to contribute a work, text or action each week that relates to or highlights the coercive recruitment and deplorable living and working conditions of migrant labourers in Abu Dhabi. In the first weeks there have been contributions by Doug Ashford, Doris Bittar, Sam Durant, Matthew Greco, Gulf Labor, Hans Haacke, Thomas Hirschhorn, Lynn Love, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Naeem Mohaiemen, Walid Raad, Oliver Ressler, Andrew Ross, Jayce Salloum, Ann Sappenfield and Gregory Sholette. The coming weeks will see contributions by Haig Aivazian, Shaina Anand, Ayreen Anastas, Yto Berrada, Noel Doublas, Rana Jaleel, Rene Gabri, Mariam Ghani, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, Josh MacPhee, Marina Naprushkina, Shirin Neshat, Ashok Sukumaran, WBYA (Who Builds Your Architecture) and many others.

Walid Raad, a member of Gulf Labor stated:
If the Guggenheim, Louvre and TDIC [Tourism, Development & Investment Company. Abu Dhabi] were willing to invest as much energy and resources into safeguarding the rights of workers buildings museums on Saadiyat Island, as they are on hiring “starchitects,” building engineering marvels, and buying challenging artworks, then their claims of building the best infrastructure for the arts in the world would be more than words in the wind. Abu Dhabi, its residents and workers, deserve more than the “edgy” buildings and collections proposed by the best museum-brands in the world. Abu Dhabi also deserves the development, implementation and enforcement of the most progressive labor laws for their emerging institutions. If the museums can’t see this, then I can only hope that the ruling Sheikhs and Sheikhas will, and soon.
Doris Bittar, a member of Gulf Labor stated:
Appearances are deceiving. The workers building the museums in Abu Dhabi look neat in their blue uniforms and hard hats. Their cared for appearance belie the facts that many are working 15-hour shifts, have had their passports confiscated and cannot leave or quit, they cannot congregate or collectively make demands regarding their lack of pay and their poor living conditions, and they have no recourse if they are physically abused because of unenforced labour laws. Sometimes, the only way they can leave and be sent home is in caskets.
Naeem Mohaiemen, a member of Gulf Labor stated:
We note efforts to always push blame down the human-labour supply chain: corrupt middlemen, "illiterate" workers, or recruitment agencies in the origin countries. This avoids acknowledgement of the overwhelming power, and responsibility, in the hands of institutions in Abu Dhabi and within the Euro-American art axis.
Guy Mannes-Abbott, a member of Gulf Labor stated to me in an extended commentary:
The migrant community in the UAE makes up some 80% of the population, most of whom have very few rights as such and those [that they have] are very poorly monitored, or easily got around - with the help of [sometimes] vulnerable non-Emiratis. However while there are movements for political reform in all Gulf countries including the UAE this permanent population-in-flux is not included in those fights for citizenship and potential constitutional rights as political subjects. One aim here is to help make such a migrant subject thinkable on a global scale.
This is the point at which individuals, who are often working in "conditions of forced labour" according to Human Rights Watch, because of coercive and illicit recruitment fees equivalent to some two years of earnings [and which incur extortionate and hugely inflated interest rates] for construction workers, link to broader locations, narratives and collectives in a globalised economy. In November 2012  PriceWaterhouseCooper, appointed by Abu Dhabi's TDIC despite compromising links in the Gulf and Gulf Labor's alternative suggestions, reported that 75% of construction workers on Saadiyat had paid recruitment fees and other costs. The response from TDIC has been to demand receipts (!) and to sack even PriceWaterhouseCooper at the end of that year… 
The average income in Abu Dhabi is about $30,000 while the average income for migrant construction workers is less than 10% of that. In Qatar, the average income is over $70,000. 
The Louvre Abu Dhabi has gotten underway with workers trapped by these recruitment fees, many of them - 40% according to PriceWaterhouseCooper, despite an "obligation" on contractors to house employees there - not living in the official accommodation provided on Saadiyat. The official accommodation is a metal-walled camp for up to 40,000 men, almost all of whom originate from South Asia. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is happy to pay these labouring men about $2500-3000 a year and watch others being deported for pleading for a few hundred dollars more per year to eat properly, while itself receiving $17,500,000 a year for 30 years from Abu Dhabi for the use of the 'Louvre' brand alone. The total package is worth well over a billion dollars and includes various sweeteners built in and around Paris for the French government too. 
UAE is a signatory to International Labour Organisation conventions but has not implemented laws on the right to organise and collectively bargain or form a union. There is a minimum wage on the books but it has not come in to law. Both of these would enable these often basely exploited people to address their situation fairly and with dignity as well as to transform their experience into one of meaningful sacrifice. Meanwhile, if a worker on Saadiyat wants to lodge a complaint, which is a legal right, he has to get it in writing and hand-deliver it either to Dubai or another spot in Abu Dhabi notably distant from the camp which even in Abu Dhabi is officially classified as "remote". He can only do that on a day off and on that day off, Friday, these ministry buildings are closed… 
Poster launching Gulf Labor 52 Weeks...
at 2013 Venice Biennale
Gulf Labor is intent on raising standards and extending aspirations. Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim Foundation has described the Gehry-designed Museum he wants to build on these foundations as a "beacon" of cultural exchange: brightly-lit meaninglessness. Instead, Gulf Labor is intent on turning that light into the dark corners of this enterprise to remind the world and the UAE of the hopes, dreams and legitimate expectations of the human beings whose lives are being defined by their experience today. 
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, is presently on course to memorialise "conditions of forced labour". There is time, occasion and opportunity to change that. The UAE is trying to achieve something very remarkable, very fast but doing it like this undermines otherwise laudable ambitions and legitimate aspirations. 

With thanks to Gulf Labor and in particular Guy Mannes-Abbott. Bidisha is a 2013 International Reporting Project Fellow reporting on global health and development issues. 

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Hyeonseo Lee’s North Korean escape and rescue memoir gains six figure book deal

Hyeonseo Lee, whose memoir will
be published in Autumn 2014
Hyeonseo Lee escaped the North Korean regime. Later, she risked her life to return and rescue her mother and brother. Her memoir of these events has now been acquired by Arabella Pike, Publishing Director at William Collins UK, in a six-figure deal following a hotly contested auction among numerous publishing houses bidding for the rights. Arabella Pike says that the book “has electrified everyone here …and in our US office.” She describes it as “powerful, deeply emotional and important” and adds that Hyeonseo Lee “will be, I believe, the first eyewitness female writer to describe the terrifying fates of North Korean women escapees in China.”

The deal was brokered by Kelly Falconer of the Asia Literary Agency, based in Hong Kong. And that’s why Kelly’s my agent. She comments,
This is the story not only of Hyeonseo's escape - literally from the darkness into the light - but also of her coming of age, of her "re-education", of her ability to successfully rebuild her life not once but twice, first in China, then in South Korea, which proved to be the more difficult of the two. Thousands of refugees and escapees pour out of North Korea but thousands also struggle to adapt, and rarely do they thrive, as Hyeonseo Lee has.
The book is due to be published in Autumn 2014. Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish rights have been sold at various auctions by Pontas Literary Agency, acting on behalf of the Asia Literary Agency, with other offers currently under consideration.

Buzz about Hyeonseo Lee has been building for months following her TED talk, which detailed her escape from North Korea and has gathered over 2 million views online. It is viewable here:

As a child, Hyeonseo Lee thought her country was ‘the best on the planet’. It wasn't until the devastating famine of the 1990s that she began to question what she had been taught. She escaped to China when she was 14 and began a life in hiding as an illegal alien. The book, as yet untitled, will describe her privileged childhood in North Korea, her life in China, her decision to settle eventually in South Korea and her journey back to North Korea to rescue her mother and brother. She is now at university in South Korea and is a human-rights advocate and spokesperson for the North Korean refugee community.

Selected further reading about North Korea

Press release text (c) Flatcap Asia, with thanks to Kelly Falconer for exclusive quote. 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Men who rent and use women: film premiere of Honest Lies and debate about change in prostitution laws

Off the back of my discovery of the brilliant sites The Prostitution Experience and The Invisible Men, which put the responsibility, questions and scrutiny back on men who think it's okay to buy women...

At 7pm on 14th October at Amnesty International's UK headquarters in London MP Fiona Mactaggart, author Kat Banyard, campaigner Ruth Jacobs and Cheryl Stafford, Exiting Prostitution and Internal Anti-Trafficking Advocate at Eaves for Women, will be part of a panel discussing the decriminalisation of prostitution following the premiere of Honest Lies:

Honest Lies is an 11-minute film based on a story written by a woman previously involved in prostitution during volunteer-led workshops. The screening will be followed by a discussion about how to support women exiting prostitution, and the need for a change in legislation that will decriminalise the sale of sex, and criminalise its purchase. This is known as the Nordic model: a set of laws that penalises the demand for commercial sex while decriminalzing individuals in prostitution based on an approach first adopted in Sweden in 1999, followed by Norway and Iceland. The Nordic model has two main goals: to curb the demand for commercial sex that fuels sex trafficking, and promote equality between men and women.

To purchase tickets, please click here.

On 20th September 2013, the UN’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law announced they were considering calls for countries to "repeal laws that prohibit consenting adults to buy or sell sex" and that ban "immoral earnings" and brothel-keeping, and also demands measures "to ensure safe conditions for sex workers". These announcements were met with horror from support organisations who are petitioning the UN to listen to survivors.

All panellists will be available for interview at the event and there will be a Q&A discussion.

Fiona Mactaggart MP (Slough) campaigned successfully for the law to be amended so that anyone paying for sex from those they know to be trafficked is criminalised, said:
At the moment, Britain’s prostitution laws target women who are trapped in prostitution, often by pimps or because of addiction, and the men who use those women don’t face any consequences for their behaviour. It’s time we did more to help women build a new life and exit prostitution instead of punishing them.
Ruth Jacobs, author and campaigner whose website provides a forum for survivors to share their stories, is also appearing on BBC1’s Inside Out programme on 21st October talking about the Merseyside model of policing. The Merseyside model refers to the Merseyside Police Force's pledge in 2006 to treat crimes against people in prostitution as hate crimes. The hate crime model has had outstanding results. In Liverpool, in 2009, police convicted 90% of those reported to have raped sex workers. In 2010, the overall conviction rate in Merseyside for crimes against sex workers was 84%, with a 67% conviction rate for rape. The national average conviction rate for rape is 6.5%. The event on 14th Octoberwill be the first time that Ruth will speak publicly about her status as a survivor of prostitution.

Gabriella Apicella, producer of Honest Lies, will chair the panel. Having run writing workshops at Eaves for the past 18 months, she ran a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign to 100% finance the making of the film, and adapted the story for the screen. She said:
I made this film because the women I have been working with told me nobody cares about their stories. Not only did I intend to disprove that, but I also believe that the stories of survivors of prostitution can facilitate a change in the law. Those who have been prostituted must be decriminalised, and the purchase of sex punished by law, as an expression by society that human beings are not commodities.
Kat Banyard, author of The Equality Illusion and founder of grassroots activism organisation UK Feminista is also on the panel, along with with Cheryl Stafford, Exiting Prostitution and Internal Anti-Trafficking Advocate at Eaves for Women.

Cheryl Stafford facilitated the writing workshops that the original story of “Honest Lies” came from. Eaves for Women is a charity organisation that supports women who have experienced violence. Specialised projects support women exiting prostitution, trafficked women, survivors of sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence. In 2013 The Scarlet Centre, a women-only drop-in facility where the writing classes in which “Honest Lies” was conceived were initially based, closed due to a cut in funding. Only volunteer-led activities continue to take place, each at the discretion of those who contribute their time.

To purchase tickets please click here.

For more information or to reserve a press ticket contact

Text (c) Honest Lies project and Gabriella Apicella

Thursday, 3 October 2013

What’s Pashto for ‘fabulous?’ A new contemporary jewellery exhibition showcases the work of Afghan artisans

Turquoise Mountain Institute, polishing
Even when the international news about Afghanistan tends to look like this and an ordinary person like me yearns to kiss off the English glass ceiling and join the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan to fight for emancipation, sometimes all it takes is a bit of bling to dazzle me back to centre. No need to fight the Taliban face to face and go into politics or die trying – I can express my solidarity from here and clock some bejangle in the run-up to Christmas. 

If you want to feel that even in an uncertain world there’s still craft and joy and beauty, go to The British Council’s Gem: Contemporary Jewellery and Gemstones from Afghanistan, an exhibition of jewellery, gem-cutting and contemporary practices, which will go on show at the British Council’s London headquarters on 8th October.

Curated by Melanie Eddy, the show explores the process and traditions behind gem-cutting in Afghanistan and examines how these techniques are applied to contemporary jewellery. The display is the result of a long collaboration with Turquoise Mountain, an Afghanistan-based organisation which promotes Afghan craft and design worldwide. On display will be specially commissioned jewellery created by Afghan artisans alongside pieces of contemporary jewellery by UK designers including Pippa Small, Hattie Rickards, Vicki Sarge and Melanie Eddy.

Turquoise Mountain Institute, polishing lapis
Now I’m in the world of the great and the good (local community MBE, here we come), I have to give my official line on anything I write about, so let’s be clear. I’m pro the British Council, despite a great rumour someone told me once – “You know those white chaps in blue prinstripe suits are all MI6? It’s the way they can walk into any embassy in the world with absolute ease and no-one stops them.” I couldn’t possibly comment. I’m in favour of the British Council's cultural diplomacy, of cordial and creative international relations and in particular of long term, empowered and remunerated artistic collaboration which nurtures talent and supports careers. It's invaluable; the British Council has created meaningful international opportunities culturally, educationally and socially.

As John Mitchell, Director, British Council Afghanistan, says:
This exhibition shows how through residencies, skills development and the exchange of ideas, Afghan jewellery design and manufacture has been both restored and enriched. This has led sustainable economic development and improved prospects and livelihoods. Gem also illustrates how UK – Afghan collaboration has helped inform UK jewellery design. Internationally renowned British jewellers have been inspired by Afghan design, processes and gemstones to develop new, innovative products which reflect the best of our creative industries. 
The exhibition brings to life the personal stories of the jewellery makers and gem cutters, exploring, as the organisers say, “how arts and culture can contribute to the rebuilding of a post conflict country.”

Let’s say nothing wincingly over-specific about where that conflict came from and who supported it, because no euphemism could possibly cover it. But who cares about global military alliances, arrogant Western occupation, colonial notions of liberation and conquer, failed and expensive wars and special relationships turned rotten when you can admire the beautiful and exquisitely made things on display?

Oculus ring by Hattie Richards

Silver filigree earrings by Monawer Shah Qodusi
The exhibition will also feature gems in their uncut forms, maps of their origins in Afghanistan and tools of the gem-cutting trade as well as a short film by Afghan filmmaker Jawed Taiman which will document the making process.

...and, soldering
The exhibition is a flagship event of the British Council’s new UK-South Asia season, a programme which will be running throughout autumn 2013 to celebrate and explore the cultural relationship between the UK and South Asia. The season includes the premier of The Djinns of Eidgah, a new play by Abhishek Majumbar; a discussion about the role of press reporting on India/Pakistan; a celebration of Bengali literature; a discussion about Indian epic literature; a celebration of the inspiring cities of Kolkata, Mumbai and Karachi and more.

...and shellac
While I love the range of issues up for discussion and the intelligent and engaged approach, looking at the participants namechecked in the speaking events which are not invitation-only, they are more than 80% male. Now you know and I know that the audiences, the producers, the PRs, the supporters and the administrators are 70% female, so all the labour and investment is going one way and all the benefits are going the other way. This is happening in the same month that the publishers Frances Lincoln produced an anthology spanning 244 British writers, 500 years and 600 pages, curated by two young English chaps who kept women at 19.5%, proving that sexist discrimination really is colourblind.

In the British Council's invite-only events roster there is one gender panel where they stick some women. The session's called 'The changing shape of gender equality in South Asia; shifts, challenges and a new global partnership.' So far, the season organisers have stuck very faithfully to the 'gender shape' that's always been there and have not challenged it or shifted it in any way, but have patriarchally done what has always been done, by massively marginalising women and keeping us at 22% or less.

Anyway, the gem exhibition looks fantastic and the design work has integrity (hipsterspeak for it's not just tat). What an irony - and yet how typical - that the majority of the Afghan makers shown straining their eyes and fingers to create something very beautiful for not that much money are women, yet when it comes to kicking back, being invited onto a lovely discussion panel, being worshipped as an intellectual and talking about broad issues, cultural shifts, global relations and creative challenges women are pushed to the margins and dropped off the edge. But we can wear lovely necklaces as we fall.

Turquoise Mountain Institute
Works in progress
Gem: Contemporary Jewellery and Gemstones from Afghanistan:
  • 8th October – 29th November 2013
  • 10am – 4pm Monday to Saturday
  • British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London, SW1A 2BN
For more information about the exhibition or the British Council’s South Asia season click right here or right here.

All photos and press release text (c) British Council except my obvious interjections.