ABU DHABI // The developer of Abu Dhabi's Guggenheim museum has responded to artists' protests over worker conditions at the construction site by inviting them to conduct a first-hand inspection.
More than 130 prominent artists and curators pledged to boycott the Guggenheim this week in protest at worker conditions on Saadiyat Island, the site of the museum. However, the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) said yesterday it had a long-standing and deep commitment to protect workers' rights.
"TDIC has always welcomed dialogue regarding its practices with the artists and those who are also committed to constructive dialogue about protecting workers' rights, and we will continue to have this policy as work progresses on Saadiyat," the company said in a statement.
TDIC also said it planned to invite artists to the island development to tour worker facilities and witness conditions for themselves.
In a petition addressed to Richard Armstrong, the director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, the artists called on the museum to safeguard the rights of thousands of migrant labourers working on Saadiyat Island.
"Human rights violations are currently occurring on Saadiyat Island, the location of the new museum," the petition reads.
"In two extensive reports on the UAE, Human Rights Watch has documented a cycle of abuse that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, poorly paid and unable to defend their rights or even quit their jobs."
Saadiyat Island, one of TDIC's flagship projects, is the future home of Abu Dhabi branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums and is eventually to house an estimated 145,000 residents. It is expected to be completed by 2020.
Thousands of labourers from an estimated 18 countries working for more than 40 contractors live on the island in a TDIC-developed Construction Village.
Last week, the company said it planned to expand its independent monitoring programme, which assesses labourers' rights and the welfare of workers at the island site.
A dedicated monitoring consultancy is to be named by May.
The petition's signatories said their "cooperation with the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi (and, for many of us, at other Guggenheim locations) will not be forthcoming" until labour reforms are enacted.
The Lebanese multimedia artist Walid Raad, one of the signatories, said: "Artists should not be asked to exhibit their work in buildings built on the backs of exploited workers. Those working with bricks and mortar deserve the same kind of respect as those working with cameras and brushes."
In a 2009 report, Human Rights Watch accused the UAE of exploiting workers by allowing unlawful practices including the use of recruiting fees and a sponsorship system that gives employers virtually complete power over workers.
The boycott effort, led by a coalition of international artists that includes Raad and the Ramallah-based artist Emily Jacir, began last year when an initial letter with more than 40 signatories was sent to the Guggenheim Foundation.
After meeting with Mr Armstrong, Human Rights Watch and other officials, the group decided not to make the letter public and agreed to give the museum time to develop employment policies, according to a schedule of events posted on the group's website.
In 2010, TDIC released its employment practices policy, which outlines protections related to health and safety, accommodation, insurance and wages for workers.
But, the artists' group said, "The released documents failed to address a number of issues such as the absence of independent monitoring of employers' compliance with human rights standards, and about the lack of an effective enforcement mechanism."
TDIC said the petitioners' letter did not take into account the recent moves by the company to safeguard workers' rights.
"TDIC has in place a robust mechanism to ensure workers do not pay recruitment fees to work on Saadiyat," its statement said. "TDIC recently expanded this to include that contractors must reimburse workers for any recruitment fees they might have paid."
The artists said the efforts are too little, too late.
"By March 2011, we noted little progress on the issues we raised, even after TDIC announced that it is committed to the appointment of a dedicated independent consultancy company sometime soon," the group's statement reads.