VENICE — On Wednesday the Gulf Labor Coalition held the first in a series of four panels it is organizing as part of the 2015 Venice Biennale. Held in the Arena of the Biennale’s Central Pavilion, the first conference was attended by about 60 people, a mix of journalists, activists, and Biennale visitors. Artists Walid Raad and Shaina Anand opened the session by presenting the history and the activities of the Coalition, as well as addressing the situation of migrant workers employed at the building sites of the Guggenheim and the Louvre museum outposts on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Some of the most visible aspects of the problems facing migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are overwork and the lack of safe conditions, which often leads to accidents, some of which can be fatal — like a recent death at the Louvre Abu Dhabi site.
“Most of [the workers] discover at their arrival that they will be paid much less than expected and have their passport confiscated by the recruitment agency, which is an illegal procedure anywhere in the world,” explained a representative of the International Trade Union of Building Workers (ITUBC). He went on to describe the Gulf nations as an open prison for migrant workers: “In Qatar also many migrants workers are building the facilities for the FlFA World Cup, which will be held in 2022, in the same conditions as those in Abu Dhabi. Like the Guggenheim and the Louvre do, FIFA claims that the security and well-being of the workers are the local government’s responsibility.”
Renaud Detalle from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights added: “Several international conventions on labor issues already exist, but the UAE have not signed all of them.”
Even the embassies seem powerless or unwilling to protect their citizens from these abuses, and with trade unions being prohibited in the Emirates, the only way for the workers to defend their rights is to go to court. “The problem is that in the UAE most of the judges are also migrant workers, so their freedom of judgment is very limited,” Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Workers Confederation, pointed out.
In fact, labor problems in the Gulf countries do not only affect “low-skilled” workers, as illustrated by the case of Algerian-French football player Zahir Belounis, who was refused an exit visa to leave Qatar because of a legal dispute with his former team over two years of unpaid wages.
“After the Arab Spring of 2011, Abu Dhabi strongly repressed the requests for more democracy coming from its own citizens: some of them have been given life sentences and most organizations of local civil society — like the teachers’ association — have been dismantled by the government,” explained Nick McGeehan, Human Rights Watch’s researcher for Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE. “Personally, I think the whole Saadiyat Island project is just a public relations exercise, and has nothing to do with art or culture and the freedom of thinking that should come with them.”
In the past five years, members of the Gulf Labor Coalition have interviewed dozens of workers, both in Saadiyat Island labor camps and in their countries of origin for those who were deported after protesting to get paid — some workers don’t get paid for months. In India, activists also investigated the procedures for hiring workers to go to the UAE. “One of the main points is to convince the building companies operating in the Gulf, most of which are European, to hire the workers directly, instead of draw upon sub-contractors,” said Indian artist and activist Shaina Anand. “That would force them to finally take their responsibilities toward these people.”
The group’s research is included in The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor, a book edited by Gulf Labor member and NYU professor Andrew Ross that was presented after Wednesday’s panel. The book, which will be released in October, includes essays by scholars and activists about the labor situation in the Gulf countries and the actions undertaken by the Gulf Labor Coalition in the past two years to pressure the Guggenheim Foundation into doing something about the rights of the workers building its Abu Dhabi outpost. (Another launch event for Ross’s book will take place at the Venetian non-profit space S.a.L.E Docks on August 7, following a performance deconstructing Frank Gehry‘s design for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.) Much information on the subject is also collected in a new Gulf Labor report titled “For Security Reasons.”
Even though the Guggenheim Foundation has claimed to be concerned about these problems, their actions suggest otherwise. The question remains whether the Guggenheim and Louvre are prepared to see their names linked to human rights violations and to risk future boycotts from artists and arts professionals — many of whom support the Gulf Labor Coalition’s efforts and have signed open letters calling attention to the situation on Saadiyat Island.
Attendees at Wednesday’s event, especially the Italians, seemed shocked by the revelations and asked the speakers questions after the conference. Even though Italian media have reported on labor conditions for migrant workers in the UAE in the past, the issue seems virtually unknown to the Biennale public. Hopefully, the Gulf Labor Coalition’s presence in Venice will help remedy this.