Even as the Indian authorities attempt to deal with news that more than 500 Indian construction workers had died in Qatar since 2012, several artists stormed New York's Guggenheim Museum on Saturday to protest what they described as "the deplorable living and working conditions" of migrant workers in Abu Dhabi engaged in building branches of several international museums in the emirate.
The protestors, who belong to a group called G.U.L.F., began to shout slogans at the blast of a bugle. They tossed pamphlets at visitors and chanted, "Who is building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?"
They are attempting to focus attention on the conditions of 15,000 workers – a significant number of them from India – who are living in labour camps as they construct a cultural district on Saadiyat island in Abu Dhabi. One of the structures that will be built there is a franchise of the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation and Museum. A branch of the Louvre is also being constructed, as is the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, in collaboration with the British Museum.
"Workers spend up to 12 hours per day on their worksites, often in extreme conditions of heat and humidity with temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius)," said a report by Human Rights Watch.
Just as alarming, they said, were the contractual obligations under which the workers have been employed. Most of the workers -- the bulk of whom were from South Asia -- take out huge loans to pay employment agencies to get them these jobs, even though recruitment fees are illegal under the law of the United Arab Emirates.
“The basic problem is that the way the system is designed, the worker remains in debt for several years,” said Ashok Sukumaran, co-founder of Indian artists collective CAMP and a member of Gulf Labour, which is sympathetic to G.U.L.F. “A worker is bound to that job until he or she finds something else, which would involve paying more money to somebody else and continuing that debt.”
Workers from India borrow anything from Rs 70,000 to Rs 1 lakh to middlemen who arrange for their travel to and employment at a company in a Gulf country, said Sukumaran, who has visited Saadiyat three times.
"Because they are often already highly indebted upon arrival in the UAE, many workers have virtually no power to bargain over the terms of the official UAE work contracts their corporate employers require them to sign upon arrival in the UAE," said Human Rights Watch. "After signing these contracts, many of the workers on Saadiyat Island discovered that their salaries in the UAE were as little as 50 per cent of what the agencies in their home countries, and that their overtime pay, vacation days and other benefits were also greatly reduced." They are not allowed to form unions and have no platforms on which to raise their concerns.
Gulf Labour, a collective of artists and students across the world, want an independent organisation to monitor the status of construction workers at Saadiyat island, which means Island of Happiness in Arabic. The site of the flagship project of a semi-government-run Tourism Development & Investment Company, which wants to transform Abu Dhabi into a glamorous counterpart of neighbouring Dubai.
The project will cover 20 square kilometres and will contain luxury housing, and beach resorts in addition to the cultural institutions.
“These will be the largest museums in the world,” said Shaina Anand, another co-founder of CAMP, who is also associated with Gulf Labour. “We can’t keep blaming the trade system so we decided to check on Guggenheim directly. Better labour standards is not much to ask for considering the scale of these buildings.”
Anand and Sukumaran are also signatories to a 2011 petition that developed into Gulf Labour. Signed by 156 artists across the world, the petition asked for Guggenheim to ensure that fair labour practices were maintained by the companies building its site. It now has over 10,000 supporters who say they will not share their art with the new museum unless it ensures high labour standards while being constructed.
“Artists as a group have the leverage to tell Guggenheim that they need to improve working conditions or we will boycott them,” Anand said. “In the end, curators working for Abu Dhabi will want a regional collection of art. If artists from South Asia do not participate, what will they do?”
Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, while emphasising that construction on the Abu Dhabi site had not yet begun, told Scroll.in that the museum authorities are “engaged in ongoing, serious discussions with our most senior colleagues in Abu Dhabi regarding the issues of workers’ rights. As global citizens, we share the concerns about human rights and fair labour practices and continue to be committed to making progress on these issues.”
However, according to Sukumaran, the camps housing the workers who will build these structures are located near a sewage treatment facility, far removed from public view. They are inaccessible to the general public, and guards at checkpoints turn away casual visitors, he said.
Two weeks ago, Anand and Sukumaran, along with other migrant rights organisations in India including Society for Labour and Development and Alternative Law Forum, sent a memorandum to the Ministry of Overseas Employment and to the Protector General of Emigrants to look into potentially exploitative practices at the site. They expect a reply later this week.
They want to address recruitment practices in India so that potential emigrants are not forced into an exploitative system. They also want the Indian government to take responsibility for its citizens abroad, something it failed to do in mid-February when reports of the Qatar deaths emerged.
Said Sukumaran, “This is not to say similar things don’t happen in rural India or Bombay, but this is a specifically designed structural system with a strong legal framework to support it. The system is implemented strictly. That is why we are worried about this.”