Last Friday afternoon, roughly a dozen protestors at the Guggenheim in New York shut down the museum after unfurling a "Meet Workers' Demands Now" banner in the lobby and dropping thousands of leaflets from the top of the building's signature curved rotunda. The move was part of a public campaign by groups such as the Gulf Labor Coalition and GULF, a direct-action group, to put pressure on the organization to follow proper labor practices at its Frank Gehry-designed expansion in Abu Dhabi. According to a prominent supporter, this is the start of a wider campaign.
"We're escalating our campaign to give the Guggenheim a chance to avoid the mistakes that NYU made," says Andrew Ross, a professor at New York University (NYU) and part of the Gulf Labor Coalition, referring to the much-criticized construction of NYU Abu Dhabi, which subjected workers to forced labor and abysmal accommodations. "The Guggenheim is a flagship project and doing this in an ethical way sets a standard, that workers need to be respected."
According to Ross, protesters will soon begin a year of weekly events to raise awareness of the issue called 52 Actions. The Gulf Labor Coalition will also be participating in the Venice Biennial to help bring attention to the issue.
At the heart of the debate is enforcement of labor standards and accountability for those working on Saadiyat Island, a roughly 10.5-square-mile cultural complex off the coast of the Gulf state that includes the forthcoming Guggenheim, the Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre and the Rafael Viñoly-designed NYU campus. Currently, the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), the master planner for the island, have an Employment Practices Policy (EPP) which, if enforced, would curtail the worst abuses of the kafala labor system. Those includes making migrant workers pay a steep recruitment fee to make it to Abu Dhabi and then, in effect, forcing them into debt peonage to pay off what they owe, a process that often takes two years.
In a statement, the Guggenheim says the protests run counter to the objective of "building the goodwill necessary to further change on an extremely complex geopolitical issue." The statement went on to note they have contributed to the TDIC and have made "significant and documented progress" on multiple fronts, including worker accommodation, access to medical coverage, grievance procedures and retention of passports, and "continue to advance progress on conditions for workers."
Ross agrees the Guggenheim has been in dialogue with his group; they've met multiple times. But he and his colleagues want the institution to ensure enforcement, install proper labor monitors and pay a living wage. His own research on the ground in Abu Dhabi, which has gotten him banned from the country, suggests patterns of non-compliance and abuse. They believe the current monitor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, isn't doing an adequate job, and previous reports have been damning towards labor practices on the island.
The question of how much responsibility architects and organizations have when it comes to local labor practices is a hot topic, especially in light of the controversy surrounding certain Zaha Hadid projects. Ross feels it's the responsibility of the Guggenheim to challenge the migrant labor practices in the UAE, an absolute monarchy where dissent and debate are stifled.
"Guggenheim can avoid all of these things in advance by taking action now," he says. "We've been in dialogue with the Guggenheim Foundation for a long time now, and their reputation has been tarnished. It's associated with forced labor and debt peonage. They can quickly turn this around."