News

Boycott Group Responds to Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Labor Conditions Report

by Mostafa Heddaya on February 4, 2014

img_1283c4

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi construction site on Saadiyat Island (image via Gulf Labor)

In a statement released earlier this evening, the Gulf Labor advocacy group has responded to a report on labor conditions at Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island cultural development produced by the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) consultancy. The report, the second in as many years commissioned by the state-run Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) of Abu Dhabi, aims to dispel claims of widespread and systemic human rights and labor law abuses at the construction sites of several major museum projects, including the Louvre and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. After the release of the first report, the Gulf Labor group released a statement debunking both PwC’s claim to objectivity and many of its conclusions, which were unsurprisingly very sympathetic to the Emirate. This charge is repeated today:

From its outset, the Gulf Labor Coalition has urged TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company of Abu Dhabi) to appoint an independent monitor to audit labor conditions on Saadiyat Island. Since PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) audits the books of companies whose subsidiaries are involved in construction on the island, its business in the UAE is dependent on good relations with state authorities. As a result, PwC’s findings will always lack full credibility. A truly independent monitor would not have such ties, and no obvious conflicts of interest. It is still early in the construction process, and therefore by no means too late to appoint a monitor whose reports would not invite questions about its impartiality.

The statement continues:

Nevertheless, the fact that PwC found a sharp increase in the percentage of workers paying crushing recruitment fees (up from 73% to 86%) and relocation fees (up from 79% to 92%) amounts to a stark verdict on the inability of TDIC to enforce its own employment practices rules on Saadiyat Island: these debts result in a worker’s de facto indenture. We maintain that if TDIC and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi spent as much time, effort and creative energy on solving the issue of recruitment fees as they do on buying artworks, they would have solved this matter long ago.

As we noted in our coverage of the report’s release last month, the document’s most insidious contribution to the discussion of human rights issues at Saadiyat is its abject diffusion of responsibility: Gulf Labor petitions the Guggenheim, the Guggenheim turns to TDIC, TDIC turns to PwC, PwC turns to the contractors and a newly appointed (and thus far unnamed) “Health & Safety management and monitoring” service provider.

Nevertheless, Gulf Labor does isolate some improvement:

On a more positive note, several concrete steps have been taken regarding the building of an infrastructure for art in the region: the Guggenheim’s joint statement on worker’s rights (http://www.guggenheim.org/abu-dhabi/about/joint-statement-on-workers-rights), Human Rights Watch’s second, follow-up report (http://www.hrw.org/reports/2012/03/21/island-happiness-revisited-0), and the appointment of PwC as an outside, even though not an independent, monitor, now having delivered its second report. These developments have been greatly influenced by the continuing Gulf Labor boycott.

But awareness does not necessarily equal action, and the waiting game has been an effective gambit favored by the PR peons of the world — one enthusiastically embraced by the Guggenheim’s leadership in New York, which by all appearances seems content to merely shrug its shoulders eastward.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.

Previous post:

Next post: