Protesters Occupy the Guggenheim, Demand End to Slave Labor at Museum’s Satellite Site In Abu Dhabi

May 1, 2015 | Prachi Gupta

Migrant workers toiling away in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island have been working under under slave-like conditions for at least five years to build branches for world-class institutions, including the Guggenheim and NYU, but warnings from the Human Rights Watch and other activists have fallen on deaf ears. On Friday, a few minutes after 12 PM, a group of about 60 protesters swarmed the Guggenheim in Manhattan to demand accountability from the museum’s management.

As of 1 PM, the museum was closed to the public and protesters were still inside; a dozen refused to leave. Guggenheim staff asked cops not make any arrests, however, and have allowed them to remain seated inside — as long as their numbers don’t grow. Two cops have been stationed to reinforce the mandate. The museum remains closed to the public.

The group is an international coalition of artists and writers known as Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF). GULF has staged similar protests at the Guggenheim before, but felt compelled to return on International Workers Day because conditions at the luxury island site have not changed.

In February, the Human Rights Watch issued an 82-page report detailing the abuses workers continue to suffer, and faulted the Guggenheim and others for neglecting to take a stance:

The report details how, five years after Human Rights Watch revealed conditions of forced labor on Saadiyat Island, some employers are withholding workers’ wages and benefits, failing to reimburse them for recruiting fees, confiscating workers’ passports, and housing them in substandard accommodations. In the most serious cases, contractors working for the two government development entities on the NYU and Louvre sites apparently informed United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities about the strike, leading to the arbitrary deportation of several hundred striking workers.

“We are stepping up the pressure,” said artist and GULF co-organizer Amin Husain in a press release ahead of Friday’s protest. “Rather than passing the buck on to Abu Dhabi authorities who have shown scant concern for migrants’ rights, the Foundation should face up to its responsibilities and clean the stain from the Guggenheim’s name.”

GULF’s demands are simple:

1) pay a living wage to its museum workforce;
2) reimburse workers for their crushing recruitment debts;
3) respect their right to self-organize.

According to GULF, the Guggenheim responded to the demands in April, saying, “Your proposals for a compensatory fund, as well as wage and bargaining changes are outside the Guggenheim’s range of authority. They are matters of federal law.”

Update: The Guggenheim is closed for the day.

(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)