Deconstructing Labor at NYU Abu Dhabi

As construction finishes at NYU Abu Dhabi’s new Saadiyat campus, critics from within and without the university raise questions about the campus’s ...

Mar 15, 2014

As construction finishes at NYU Abu Dhabi’s new Saadiyat campus, critics from within and without the university raise questions about the campus’s human cost.
In 2009, Human Rights Watch published a report on working and living conditions for laborers working on Saadiyat Island. It calls on Western institutions that were planning on building outposts on the 27-square-kilometer triangle-shaped island to take steps toward protecting the rights of workers who would be working on the island. The report demanded an enforceable guarantee that construction would not involve the abuse of workers.
NYU Abu Dhabi and the Executive Affairs Authority, the university’s government partner in Abu Dhabi, posted a shared Statement of Labor Values detailing the institution’s commitment to a range of labor values in line with UAE law, including articles on wages, overtime compensation, dispute resolution and women’s rights.
A series of 14 points was also published in February 2010, operationalizing the labor values with concrete details and including 45 days of paid maternity leave, employer-funded medical insurance and transport, 30 days of paid annual leave each year and employer-funded air travel between the UAE and their country of origin, either annually or bi-annually.
One point specifies that employers will fully cover or reimburse recruitment fees that workers paid to agencies in order to obtain visas to the UAE. This is an attempt to compensate for the illegal yet widespread phenomenon in which workers, particularly from South Asian countries, pay considerable sums to recruiters in order to obtain a visa to enter the UAE. While UAE law prohibits such fees, the crime in question takes place outside of the Emirates, and thus enforcement is problematic.
NYUAD’s Statement of Labor Values and 14 points were initially heralded by Human Rights Watch, which called the initiative “a significant step toward protecting migrant workers [in the UAE].”
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, was quoted saying, "These provisions set a new minimum standard so that companies will no longer be able to treat worker abuse as a necessary part of doing business in the UAE."
However, particular issues were raised vis-à-vis the enforcement of these standards. In a comparison between the Statement of Labor Values and the Fair Labor Code of Conduct dated March 2010, the Coalition for Fair Labor at NYU raised a number of shortcomings, including a lack of provisions for communicating safety procedures.
In December 2011, a laborer was killed when an improperly installed column fell and struck him. Following the incident, The National reported that both a lack of supervision and a lack of knowledge of proper procedure were cited as factors contributing to the accident. The 31-year-old man from Bangladesh was a subcontractor who worked for AASA Middle East Contracting.
Furthermore, the statement does not address NYUAD’s policies or penalties that would address breaches the statement by contractors.
A three-month investigation into workers’ conditions on Saadiyat Island, published in December jointly by the Guardian and the Observer and sponsored by the international nongovernmental organization Humanity United, detailed specific instances that contradicted NYU’s statements on labor. The Observer followed one bus of workers from NYU’s construction site to “a filthy, overcrowded camp housing 43 Bangladeshi workers.”
“There the men, hired to paint the campus, complained of being trapped by recruitment fees that exceeded a year's salary and of the high cost of even the most basic healthcare. Some, hired from myriad unregulated subcontractors, had to pay for their own work clothes on a salary of £149 [250 USD] a month.”
Some of the inconsistencies between the stated values and the reality presented in the Observer article may be systematic. The kafala system, an employment-sponsorship system used in the UAE and the region, is structured in such a way that a worker’s visa is processed through their employer. As a result, institutions are not able to hire independent workers to do short-term projects, such as painting or carpenting, as the costs and complications of bringing workers to the UAE for a six-week term would outweigh the benefits. Instead, workers are hired through contracting companies. Projects as large as the construction of the Saadiyat campus therefore conventionally require networks of contractors and subcontractors.
Greg Bruno, NYUAD’s director of public affairs, published a brief statement in response on the Student Portal in December in which he described the report as wholly inconsistent with the university’s labor standards. In February he published a more elaborate update on the school’s labor standards on Student Portal.
Bruno wrote that a comprehensive audit had found the 43 men to be living in an accommodation that was not in compliance with the Statement of Labor Values and reported that all had since been relocated. He also said that the investigation found all other requirements outlined in the Statement of Labor Values were upheld.
Bruno elaborated on ensuring compliance with the labor values.
“As construction concludes, we are working with our partners to ensure that our monitoring and compliance regime keeps [pace] with the arrival of smaller sub-contractors typically accompanying the later stages of construction projects,” he wrote. “If any subcontractors are found to be operating in a manner inconsistent with the requirements outlined in our Statement of Labor Values, they will not be retained or rehired for any further NYU Abu Dhabi work.”
The majority of projects on Saadiyat Island are managed by the state-run Tourism Development & Investment Company, which employs PricewaterhouseCoopers to monitor its projects’ compliance. NYUAD hires Mott MacDonald, an independent firm to ensure compliance with its labor values.
While Mott MacDonald’s 2011 and 2012 reports were both publicly released in January 2012 and 2013 respectively, the 2013 report is still forthcoming.
In a recent talk at NYU in Washington Square, Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas McGeehan discussed labor in the Gulf and specifically at NYUAD. He called the reliability of the Mott MacDonald reports into question, describing them as “glowing.” He indicated that the firm's ties to Saadiyat’s power and water infrastructure development may result in reporting bias.
In addition to the Mott MacDonald reports, there is a compliance branch within the university that conducts interviews with the operational staff on campus, who are directly contracted with NYUAD.
Bruno’s recent statement also indicated that the issue of repaying recruitment fees remains complex.
“Individuals found to have paid fees for positions to work specifically on NYUAD’s campus have been — and will continue to be — reimbursed for those fees,” he wrote.
However, the statement did not specify how the university addresses contracted employees who had paid recruitment fees or employees who had come to the UAE initially for a different position and subsequently transferred to NYUAD.
Alistair Blacklock is Editor-in-Chief. Email him at
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