More than 130 international artists and writers vowed Thursday to boycott a branch of the Guggenheim Museum under construction in Abu Dhabi, unless authorities do more to protect the rights of workers on the site.
Human Rights Watch released a statement from the artists saying they will refuse to cooperate with the project until Guggenheim and Abu Dhabi authorities ensure that workers are reimbursed for any recruitment fees they paid and hire "a reputable independent monitor" that will make its findings about working conditions public.
The Tourism Development and Investment Company in Abu Dhabi, which is the government-owned developer of Saadiyat Island, where the museum is being built, said in a statement that it already was implementing many of the recommendations urged by Human Rights Watch.
The artists say "human rights violations are currently occurring on Saadiyat Island, the location of the new museum," according to the New York-based group.
"UAE authorities responsible for developing the island have failed to tackle the root causes of abuse: unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages, and a sponsorship system that gives employers virtually unlimited power over workers," the artists said.
"No one should be asked to exhibit or perform in a building that has been constructed and maintained on the backs of exploited employees," they said.
In a 2009 report, HRW documented a cycle of alleged abuse on Saadiyat Island that left migrant workers deeply indebted and unable to protect their rights or even leave their jobs. Each of the 94 workers interviewed for that report said he paid between US$1,800 and $4,100 in recruitment fees before his employment, highlighting the nearly universal acceptance of this practice in the UAE.
"If the Guggenheim and TDIC fail to address the artists' concerns, the museum may become better known for exhibiting labor violations than art," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
TDIC said it has long worked with an independent monitoring consultant that provides regular reports on the performance of its contractors and has a "robust mechanism" in place to ensure that workers don't pay recruitment fees to work on Saadiyat Island. It also required contractors reimburse any workers who paid fees.
"The company has a long standing and deep commitment to protecting workers' rights and fully respects and supports the artists' role in campaigning for this issue," the TDIC said in a statement. "However, HRW's announcement predates more recent announcements made by TDIC relating to measures already taken to further safeguard the workers' rights."
A spokesman for the Guggenheim Foundation could not be immediately reached for comment.
Labor abuses are commonplace in the United Arab Emirates, which has long depended on poorly paid South Asian migrant to build its skyscrapers, hotels and mega-projects.
In January, HRW said that the situation for migrant workers in the UAE remained dire against the backdrop of a worsening economy. The group acknowledged that the government has announced "positive labor reforms" such as more oversight of recruiting agencies.
HRW maintained that construction companies across the Gulf federation exploited or abused migrant workers in numerous ways, citing unsafe working environment, movement restrictions and withholding workers' travel documents among violations.
Concerns about labor conditions prompted New York University to announce in February that it was requiring workers involved in building and operating its Middle East campus in Abu Dhabi to have safeguards in their contracts outlining how often they are paid and how many hours they can work in a week.
The provisions also require that employers cover or reimburse employees for any fees involved in the recruitment process and not take money out of workers' pay; that workers are allowed to hold on to personal documents like passports; that overtime is voluntary and must be paid, and that workers are entitled to vacation and paid holidays.
The NYU campus is also being built on Saadiyat Island, which is located on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi and has been chosen to be the emirate's prime tourist attraction. It will be also be home to a branch of the Louvre.