At noon on Friday, May 1, a group of roughly 60 protesters flooded the lobby of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Their demands? Accountability from museum administrators regarding the documented exploitation of migrant laborers at building sites for a Guggenheim outpost on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi.
Shortly after 2pm, Guggenheim management announced, via a Twitter exchange with Animal New York, that the museum would close to visitors for the day.
@ANIMALNewYork The museum will be closed for the day.
— Guggenheim Museum (@Guggenheim) May 1, 2015
The demonstration was organized by Global Ultra Luxury Faction, or GULF, affiliated with the Gulf Labor Artists Coalition; and planned for May Day, or International Workers’ Day, in response to failures on the part of numerous western institutions to improve working conditions at project sites on Saadiyat.
GULF participants took to Twitter to give an insider’s look at the occupied lobby:
#Guggenheim not letting people inside museum #GuggOccupied pic.twitter.com/KxfhyYmaZj
— Kristina Bogos (@krisbogos) May 1, 2015
Human Rights Watch released a damning report in Feb. 2015, which highlighted grave human-rights abuses at worksites affiliated with New York University, Guggenheim, and the Louvre. “The men who’ve built these institutions come from some of the poorest countries in the world,” explained Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher for HRW in a video report on Saadiyat compiled by the organization. “It’s been five years since we first documented serious abuses on Saadiyat, and we did note some improvements. Unfortunately, in 2014, the workers we spoke to continue to be subjected to terrible abuse and exploitation.”
HRW found that workers were asked to pay large recruitment fees for which they have yet to be reimbursed. Their passports have been confiscated by contracted project managers. And in the (all too frequent) event that wages are withheld or delayed, they have no legal recourse by which to seek justice or fair compensation. Strikes result in massive deportations.
“It’s a very clear message that the UAE sends to workers,” McGeehan said, “which is ‘Don’t protest, just keep quiet and accept what you’ve got.’”
Where workers on Saadiyat have been silenced, GULF protesters in New York are taking up the banner. “Right now, we are asking for a meeting with the museum’s board of trustees,” participant Natasha Dillon tells Quartz over the phone, outlining GULF’s three demands for Saadiyat workers: “a living wage, a debt settlement account… and a right to organize.”
Quartz has reached out to the Guggenheim for comment. This article will be updated with any response.