The Guggenheim Museum’s board of trustees should publicly pledge and actively ensure respect for international labor rights in the construction and maintenance of the museum’s latest branch in Abu Dhabi, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch in February 2007 sent a private letter to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation highlighting its concerns about the exploitation of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The letter also underscored the obligations of private employers to respect the rights of workers there, but to date Human Rights Watch has not received a reply.

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is scheduled to open in 2011. It will be the largest Guggenheim branch in the world and will be part of a massive cultural district that will include three other museums, including a branch of the Louvre.

“Unless the Guggenheim takes action, its biggest overseas branch could become known for exhibiting labor violations,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch. “The Guggenheim’s board of trustees should make a public commitment and take all necessary steps to prevent the exploitation of migrant labor at the museum’s Abu Dhabi branch.”

In a report published in November 2006, Human Rights Watch documented pervasive abuses against migrant construction workers in the United Arab Emirates.

They endure hazardous working conditions and years of indebtedness to recruitment agencies for fees that UAE law says only employers should pay. Their employers routinely withhold wages and confiscate their passports. Human Rights Watch found that UAE government agencies fail to hold employers accountable for these common violations of law, contributing to an atmosphere of impunity that perpetuates these abuses. In addition, the UAE government does not protect workers’ rights to organize, bargain collectively and strike.

In February, Human Rights Watch expressed its concerns and requested a meeting in a private letter to Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim Foundation, copies of which were sent to William Mack, chairman of the board of trustees, and Betsy Ennis, the director of public affairs. Human Rights Watch has not to date received a reply.

Specifically, Human Rights Watch urges the Guggenheim to require that its UAE partners not withhold workers’ wages, not confiscate passports, document and publicly report work-related injuries and deaths, and forbid recruiters from unlawfully collecting recruiting, travel and visa fees from workers. The Guggenheim should establish an independent and transparent oversight committee to monitor labor practices at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. In addition, the Guggenheim should call on the authorities in the UAE, which is a member of the International Labour Organization, to ensure the internationally protected rights of workers to bargain collectively, form unions, and strike.

“The Guggenheim has been at the forefront of museums expanding around the world,” said Whitson. “It shouldn’t lag behind when it comes to protecting the rights of workers.”