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Guggenheim and British Museum Refuse to Work with Human Rights Groups on Abu Dhabi Projects

The Louvre Abu Dhabi during construction about a year ago (photo via @tdicae/Instagram)
The Louvre Abu Dhabi during construction about a year ago (photo via @tdicae/Instagram)

Many reports have emerged of harsh labor conditions during the construction of museums on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, but the cultural institutions involved are showing no interest in discussing these violations with leading human rights groups. On March 17, representatives of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) sent joint letters to the Guggenheim, the British Museum, and the Louvre inviting them to meet in Brussels or London to talk about labor conditions related to their individual construction projects: respectively, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Zayed National Museum — on which the British Museum is “a consulting partner” — and the Louvre Abu Dhabi — the site of the island’s first confirmed death of a construction worker. The NGOs’ requests have essentially been rejected, with directors of the Guggenheim and the British Museum simply acknowledging their correspondence. The Louvre has so far ignored the letter, which was penned by Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division, and ITUC’s General Secretary Sharan Burrow.

After about two months of silence, the responses sent by the two museums — obtained by Hyperallergic and reproduced in full below — date to the same day, May 20. They’re dated one month after the Guggenheim board of trustees broke off negotiations with the artists and writers of the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) after six years of dialogue, with director Richard Armstrong dismissing the discussions as “no longer productive.” Armstrong’s recent letter to HRW and ITUC signals his institution’s further cutting of ties with concerned human rights groups: he writes that the museum’s resources “are most effectively directed” at working with its main partner, Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), and makes no mention of pursuing dialogue with either HRW nor ITUC. The two groups are part of a coalition of NGOs that GLC assembled prior to meeting with the Guggenheim in February, which also included members from Engineers Against Poverty, Society for Labor and Development, and Building and Woodworkers’ International.

Most of Armstrong’s letter is devoted to detailing the latest revisions to TDIC’s Employment Practices Policy (EPP) related to workers’ wages and hours. British Museum director Hartwig Fischer, who assumed the position in April, also praises these policies in his letter. But museum directors’ responses suggest no openness to future conversation, with Armstrong and Fischer only noting that the museums are aware of concerns and remain committed to monitoring labor conditions. To GLC and its affiliates, this rejection of discourse — through nugatory responses or, simply, silence — represents just another poor decision by the museums as they pursue their developments on Saadiyat Island.

The Guggenheim’s response reads, in its entirety, as follows:
Dear Ms. Burrow and Ms. Whitson:
On behalf of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, I am writing in response to your request for a meeting in Brussels to discuss labor conditions related to construction on Saadiyat Island. As you note in your March letter, and as I hope was evident from our meeting in New York in February, the Guggenheim shares your organizations’ commitment to safeguarding conditions for workers who will build the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
Since the outset of the project in 2007, we have worked with TDIC [Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company] and other partners to advance measurable progress on several fronts. In advance of construction on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, for which a contract has yet to be awarded, we continue to identify and review with TDIC areas for ongoing improvement.
Last summer, TDIC revised its Employment Practices Policy (EPP), a workers’ welfare agreement endorsed by the Guggenheim in 2010 and to which we contributed recommendations for the revision. The latest updates to the EPP require employers to fully reimburse workers for all recruitment, travel and visa costs; wages must be paid to workers on a regular monthly basis without delay, with no deductions for travel or work permit fees; protections have been added to ensure safe working hours during the summer months; and documentation from contractors and subcontractors must now be provided in workers’ native languages. These changes are to be enforced by TDIC under threat of monetary penalties. In addition, the UAE Ministry of Labour introduced new decrees earlier this year that standardize contract terms and increase flexibility for workers to move between employers.
We respect and support the work of ITUC and HRW on the important topic of workers’ welfare. However, given the global complexity of the issue and the nature of the Guggenheim as an arts institution, we believe that our resources are most effectively directed at working in coordination with TDIC on our specific, shared goals for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
Sincerely,
Richard Armstrong
Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation
The British Museum’s response, in full, reads:

Dear Ms. Burrow and Ms. Whitson,

I wish to express my thanks for your letter of 17 March 2016 and my apologies for not replying sooner but I have only been at the museum for a short time.

The welfare of the migrant workers who will support the construction of Zayed National Museum has been, and remains, a matter which the British Museum takes seriously. It is for this reason that our Chairman, Trustees and senior staff have taken regular visits to the Saadiyat Accommodation Village to view facilities.

Like Human Rights Watch, we recognise that the government of the UAE has recently enacted positive reforms to labour law and policy and we likewise appreciate the challenges of enforcement. We also commend TDIC’s creation of the Employment Practices Policy and its annual revisions, in which we take a keen interest. The appointment of PWC [Pricewaterhouse Cooper] to monitor and report on migrant workers’ welfare is also welcome. Construction has not yet begun on Zayed National Museum but we will of course continue to monitor the situation.

Museums are civic spaces which foster understanding and tolerance and allow for dialogue on different cultural perspectives. Currently there is nowhere in the Middle East where the history of the UAE can be studied in the context of the region and wider world. It is of critical importance that the material for an understanding of the region’s history can be made available.

We are delighted to be supporting the creation of the Zayed National Museum, which aims to generate a deeper understanding of its culture and history.
Yours sincerely,
Hartwig Fischer
Director, The British Museum
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