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My Apollo Magazine Debate on Satellite Museums; Plus: Latest Abu Dhabi Workers’ Rights Report

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I recently got tapped by Apollo magazine to tackle the topic listed on the lower-right corner of the January cover (above): “The trouble with museum franchises.”

Little did I know how timely this would turn out to be, thanks to the just released 2014 independent monitor report on employment practices at projects (including the Louvre Abu Dhabi) on Saadiyat Island, where the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim satellite is planned (although only preliminary site preparation as been done thus far).

Issued by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the latest monitoring report once again demonstrates (as did last year’s report) how “museum franchises,” in Apollo’s words, may sometimes be “trouble.”

In the British magazine’s just-posted “Forum” debate—Should we be cynical about international museum franchises?—I take the affirmative, using the planned Guggenheims Abu Dhabi and Helsinki as cases in point. The other side (which you can read, following my essay, at the above link) is addressed by Maymanah Farhat, the artistic director of Ayyam Gallery (Beirut, Dubai and London) which represents “a roster of Middle Eastern artists with an international profile and museum presence.”

Some excerpts from my arguments:

Launching and managing a satellite museum in a foreign country that is capable of conceiving and managing its own cultural institutions is not collaboration; it’s colonization….

A better model may be that of the British Museum’s consultancy with Abu Dhabi’s planned Zayed National Museum, providing assistance with design, construction, professional development and programming (as well as loans of objects).

The biggest question hovering over satellite museums is the most basic: why would sophisticated cities with their own rich cultural heritage and traditions feel the need to establish institutions that foreigners think they need? Better to build a museum on a foundation of homegrown plans and leadership, with foreign experts (if needed) in helpful but subsidiary roles.

I was approached for this assignment on the strength of this CultureGrrl post, in which I had reported on my public interchange last April with the Guggenheim Foundation’s director, Richard Armstrong, regarding how plans for the much delayed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi might be affected by the much criticized (and now partly ameliorated) working conditions in that region. “We’re not satisfied, of course [emphasize added] with the current situation in UAE [United Arab Emirates],” he had then told me.

As it happened, during the same month when my conversation with Armstrong occurred, a contractor in Abu Dhabi “submitted a petition, signed by 2,170 workers engaged on their projects, listing complaints about the accommodation and services available in the SAV [Saadiyat Accommodation Village],” according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Saadiyat Accommation Village Photo from 2014 Employment Practices Policy Compliance Monitoring Report

Saadiyat Accommodation Village
Photo from 2014 Employment Practices Policy Compliance Monitoring Report

The independent monitor report goes on to say:

In response to this petition and other reported concerns, TDIC terminated the contract of the previous SAV Operator and appointed a new Labour Accommodation Operator….During our 2014 Q2 and Q3 visits to the SAV, we noted that the previously reported issues (such as leaking toilets and washing facilities) were still prevalent [emphasis added]. TDIC [Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company] informed us that the performance of the maintenance Contractor had not been deemed acceptable and action was being taken against this Contractor and to address the outstanding issues….

Following this action, we observed an increase in the quality of accommodation and services provided.

The payment by workers of recruitment fees and relocation costs, prohibited by TDIC’s Employment Practices Policy, continues to be a significant problem: “88% of the workers interviewed stated that they had paid recruitment fees and 89% workers stated they had paid relocation costs (including visas and air ticket costs) in cash to recruitment agents in their home countries,” according to the independent monitor’s report.

“The full resolution of the recruitment and relocation cost issue is beyond TDIC’s direct influence and also requires action outside of the UAE.”

Despite noting many improvements, the report concludes that “the issues around recruitment and relocation fees, provision of offer letters, living conditions and payment of wages are still prevalent [emphasis added] despite a number of initiatives being implemented by TDIC to monitor their Contractors.”

As I wrote in my Apollo piece: “A major stumbling block [for the planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi] has been the disparity between working conditions on construction projects in the U.S. and those in the United Arab Emirates. New written standards to protect the rights of migrant workers in Abu Dhabi have been enforced unevenly.”

That said, progress is gradually being made, as this recent development (described in the monitor’s report) demonstrates:

As part of its continuing efforts to ensure the stability of the labour market and protection of workers, on 2 October 2014, the Government of Abu Dhabi issued a memo to all local government entities mandating the registration of Contractors and Subcontractors only upon providing adequate proof [emphasis added] of: worker health insurance and visas, appropriate accommodation facilities and compliance with the UAE Wage Protection System and adherence to the federal labour law.

Local government entities, including TDIC, are also now required to submit quarterly reports on their compliance with these requirements

None of this suggests an effective solution to the problem of recruitment fees and relocation expenses that workers have been required to pay, in violation of the TDIC’s written prohibitions. As Armstrong said to me: “That’s a very complex foreign policy question between governments.”

As such, it could prove intractable, meaning that the Guggenheim could be forced to decide whether those violations are deal-killers for its project, even as progress continues to be made on other fronts.

And that could really spell trouble.

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