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.