Interview with Guy Mannes-Abbott, Gulf Labour

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Oct 28 2013

A group of influential artists are boycotting the Guggenheim Museum, currently under construction on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, in protest against the slavery-like working conditions of migrant workers employed to build the project.

Gulf Labour: 52 Weeks is a campaign launched this month by a core group of writers and artists who have come together to take a stand against the bonded labour, dangerous working conditions and exploitation of migrant workers building Abu Dhabi’s Guggenheim Museum.

The online campaign will feature a specially created piece of art, text of related action or event, by a different contributor each week for the next year.

The latest contribution, for week 2 of 52 weeks, is from Swiss installation artist Thomas Hirschhorn. Solo exhibitions of Hirschhorn’s work have appeared at the Centre Pompidou and the Hayward Gallery in London. His images and words outline the dilemma of an artist around deciding to boycott, and make for compelling reading and viewing.

Migrant-Rights.org caught up with Guy Mannes-Abbott, a writer, critic and core member of the coalition to find out more about what we can expect from Gulf Labour in the coming months, the power of artist boycotts, and his own observations from labour camp visits in Abu Dhabi:

Migrant-Rights.org (MR): Who has boycotted the Guggenheim so far?

Guy Mannes-Abbott (GM): Originally there were 43 signatories, among them artists who are very prominent in the international art world such as Hans HaackeEmily JacirShirin Neshat and Walid Raad.

MR: What is the significance of a boycott by artists, and why might this action be powerful?

GM: It’s a gesture of non-compliance, or act of 'radical passivity'. It’s a very big statement on the part of the artists too – if a piece of your work goes to a  museum like the Guggenheim, it effectively stays there for eternity. It’s a major milestone in an artist’s career to have their work exhibited by an institution with the stature of the Guggenheim, and the commission fees for their Saadiyat project are literally life-changing. Therefore it’s a very weighty moral statement to make.

Of course, the museum can still buy their art work on the secondary market, which is something that the artists don’t have much control over. Nevertheless, the boycott is a powerful action.

MR: You’ve visited some of the labour camps in Abu Dhabi where the workers building the Guggenheim are housed. What kind of conditions were they living in?

GM: We visited the Saadiyat Construction Village. It was the Ritz of labour camps – it was very new and very clean. Human Rights Watch had been refused access at about the same time (Eds: HRW wrote a report, 'Island of Happiness' about working conditions on the site)

While we found the camp to be in good shape, we still had some reservations. The site was built for up to 40,000 workers, but when we visited there were only 16,000 residents. If the camp were at full capacity, it would be an incredibly oppressive place to dwell – especially during the summer. The housing blocks are effectively metal containers with leaky a/c units and electric fans, which could be seriously unpleasant.

The other unsettling thing was the remoteness of the site. It was 2km from a multi-lane highway into the city and in the middle of desert. Workers can’t come and go at will. It’s like a prison. And given the debts that these workers come with, they couldn’t leave even if they wanted to - they have to keep working at all costs.

MR: High levels of personal indebtedness are a major problem among migrant workers in the Gulf. Do you think that a focus on their living conditions masks the bigger picture?

GM: Yes – to focus only on the infrastructure is definitely to miss the bigger picture. The living conditions are a problem and much worse elsewhere, but we are also concerned about how the workers came to be in this position in the first place. The informal process of labour recruitment in sending countries such as India and Nepal is fraught with hazards, and workers are often exploited by having to pay out huge fees to brokers throughout the process. Four brothers from a family I know in Gujarat, India, had been put into an agreement with a broker that was little more than bonded labour - they were not free to leave until they had paid off their fees and finished their contract.

MR: What could be done to improve the situation?

GM: Personally, I think that the authorities in Abu Dhabi: TDIC should cut out the various middlemen by recruiting directly from the sending countries. There should be a standardised process whereby the workers don’t pay a fee and aren’t liable for their airfare to the Gulf. These are the things that really ‘break’ the migrant worker. But, while these middlemen are culpable, there’s a broad spread of responsibility in terms of the people who are actually ‘doing’ the exploitation of workers, that includes the cultural institutions or 'brands' but also the starry architects that they employ.

I’m saying this hesitantly though, because I believe that the UAE, as the first and last benefactor of migrant construction labour, really does have to be the main agent of change.

MR: What can people do to support 52 Weeks?

GM: Have a look at our petition . If you agree with what we are asking, please sign and pass it on.

You can follow the campaign on our website and via twitter @GulfLabor1

We are still accepting approaches from signatoryartists: if you are interested, send us an email at contact@gulflabor.org

I would also say in general but also to those in the Gulf that 'doing something' includes paying attention to the reality of labour issues and talking about it amongst yourselves. It can really help in the process of improving workers' conditions, but can also help to transform the legacy of these hugely ambitious projects.

Eds: There is also a poster that you can download and print here

Guy Mannes-Abbott is a writer, essayist and critic who lives and works in London, UK. He is the author of a singular series of texts: poems, stories and aphorisms called e.things, which have been exhibited, published and performed alongside the work of leading British and International artists. In Ramallah, Running (2012) is the longest and latest in this series of texts and projects. Recently he has collaborated with Bombay-based CAMP on a film for Folkestone Triennial, contributed a short story for Drone Fiction and exhibited a wall text for Moderation[s] at Witte de With, Rotterdam.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East