On Monday, artist Molly Crabapple published “Slaves of Happiness Island,” a firsthand report of the slave-like worker conditions on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island; the Guggenheim, Louvre, and NYU are all building enormous new enterprises there. Crabapple’s reporting reveals some horrifying scenarios. She spoke with men who work seven days a week in blistering heat, shuttled between construction sites to high-security, prison-like camps where their passports are withheld so that they can’t escape. They work for as little as $176 a month, and the recruitment fees—an amount paid to an agency for finding the immigrant work based on a set salary—often take years to pay off because the promised rate is often much lower than what had been described. The initial fees are also supposed to be paid back to the workers. Nothing seems to lead to escape. “Hell is better than here,” Crabapple quotes one worker.
These conditions violate local and international labor laws. We have now received leaked email correspondence between the Guggenheim and Crabapple while she was working on this story. These emails reveal a shocking unwillingness to provide any statement to journalists who they speculate might be involved in any pro-worker activist efforts, such as Gulf Labor. Crabapple was never a member of this group. To our knowledge, this is the extent of their conversation.
Notice that this final email from the Guggenheim does not answer Crabapple’s questions about whether workers will be paid a wage of $217 per month, if they will pay back workers recruitment fees, or how the Guggenheim distinguishes which workers they are responsible for. The response to these questions might be ugly, but they are not difficult to answer. Surely the workers whose freedom, families, and labor are being exploited and withheld—all in the name of art—deserve a straight answer.