This week saw the launch of 52 Weeks of Gulf Labor, a yearlong activist project coordinated by Gulflabor, the working group opposed to the treatment of laborers at Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island cultural mega-development. The effort, originally announced at the Venice Biennale, will comprise weekly artworks, texts, and actions posted on the gulflabor.org website that highlight the continued exploitation of manual laborers working on the Guggenheim, Louvre, and Sheikh Zayed National Museum buildings. Construction on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, previously the target of the group’s widely publicized 2011 boycott, resumed this spring, and the Louvre is also under way. The Sheikh Zayed, a project advised by the British Museum, is in the contractor selection phases.
Much has been said and documented about the miserable conditions in the Emirates for the laborers enacting the fever dreams of benighted master planners and starchitects, but even the European Parliament‘s human rights objections lacked the leverage that artists had over Emirati museum projects ostensibly dependent upon their participation. And so it was that in 2011 the Guggenheim and its Emirati sponsor, the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), were forced to take Gulflabor seriously, or at least have the appearance of doing so, and halted the construction contract on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The TDIC also acquiesced to reforming labor practices on the Saadiyat Island project, and hired an “independent” monitor, the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), to assess the conditions annually.
The concessions left something to be desired. The “model” workers’ village that was constructed in the aftermath of the boycott was this August the site of bloody labor clashes; the annual September report promised by TDIC is now nearly 2 months overdue; and the Guggenheim has not since March made a public comment on the matter. The first (and thus far only) PwC report, published in September 2012, highlighted the ongoing issue of employment fees paid by workers to jobs agencies in their native countries, a particularly pernicious practice that guarantees a class of indentured servants, some of whom, PwC documented, continued to have their passports held by employers even after assurances were made that this illegal practice would end. And all of that ignores the right to collective bargaining, which has been summarily refused, or the fact that PwC itself has extensive business ties to the Emirati state, and is therefore by definition precluded from objectivity — among other issues, Gulflabor unsuccessfully sought the appointment of a Human Rights Watch–vetted independent monitor.
Given what appears to be the ebbing momentum for workers’ rights on the Saadiyat Island project — which encompasses far more than just the Guggenheim — the 52 Weeks of Gulf Labor project aims to combat the receding visibility of the Gulflabor cause with weekly volunteered works. And many high-profile figures have signed on to contribute: Doug Ashford, Yto Barrada, Doris Bittar, Sam Durant, Matthew Greco, Hans Haacke, Thomas Hirschhorn, Lynn Love, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Naeem Mohaiemen, Walid Raad, Oliver Ressler, Andrew Ross, Jayce Salloum, Ann Sappenfield, and Gregory Sholette, among others.