NYU Students Confront New Human Rights Watch Report

Human Rights Watch released a new report, Migrant Workers Rights on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 10. Amidst escalating ...

Feb 14, 2015

Human Rights Watch released a new report, Migrant Workers Rights on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 10. Amidst escalating international attention to labor conditions in the UAE, NYU students in Abu Dhabi and New York have been seeking change in separate ways.
The new HRW report, a product of extensive investigative field work both in Abu Dhabi and in migrant workers’ home countries, came five years after HRW first exposed instances of substandard working conditions of laborers at the construction sites of the three main international institutions building on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island — NYU, the Louvre and the Guggenheim.
Serious violations of standards, including passport withholding, substandard housing conditions, failure to reimburse workers for immigration costs and even physical abuse and arbitrary detainment and deportation, persist at the Abu Dhabi branches of NYU, the Louvre and the Guggenheim, according to the report.
NYUAD released a statement of Statement of Labor Values and 14 points operationalizing its labor standard in 2010, recognized by Human Rights Watch as "a significant step toward protecting migrant workers [in the UAE]." However, the standard has been violated on several accounts.
NYUAD Student Government President Hamel Al Qubaisi wrote to The Gazelle that “the issue here is not about the lack of laws or regulations. It is about the efficient monitoring of these laws.”
NYU, and any other foreign institution, are bound to the kafala system of sponsorship operating in GCC countries including the UAE. By law, NYU cannot directly oversee and manage construction workers’ contracts. In June 2014, NYU appointed an independent international law firm to investigate labor conditions.
For sophomore Muthhukumar Palaniyapan, the report’s attention to specific individuals reveals ruthless and suppressing measures on migrant workers.
“Even though we are not directly involved in this construction, at a broader level the question is, what does this say about the country and how do we fit into the country?” asked Palaniyapan. “That’s very worrying at a very gut level.”
Palaniyapan expressed doubt that NYU could be sustained in such an environment, but encouraged students to engage with the issue. He warned against the fear of speaking up and criticizing these power structures.
“You have the choice of exit or voice — you can just exit, or you can try to voice change,” said Palaniypan. “I think it is better to remain engaged in this region despite all the flaws with its law and human rights enforcements, it’s better to engage through example and through friendly influence.”
Costanza Maio, an NYU senior who studied abroad at NYUAD during the academic year 2013-2014, believed that it is the responsibility of NYUAD students, more than New York students, to constantly address these issues.
“NYUAD students are implicated to the extent that they live and benefit from the exact location in which the human rights were violated,” wrote Maio to The Gazelle. “As such, their responsibility must be to be as informed as possible on the issue and to constantly bring it up in all of types of spaces… And really, to push for answers that aren't just more excuses.”
As far as NYU students are concerned, given their number, Maio felt that it is their responsibility to showcase commitment and understanding in all ways possible.
“NYUNY students are a huge, huge body of people, many of whom are unfortunately unaware of the human rights issues happening in Abu Dhabi," said Maio. "It is absolutely the responsibility of NYUNY students to become informed and once they know what's happening, they have the responsibility of showing commitment when it's needed, whether in showing up to a rally, joining a conversation, [or] spreading the news…”
Maio added that there is a need for cross-campus collaborative work regarding human rights violations in the UAE. [big_image]

Student Activism in New York

NYU’s student bodies in New York and Abu Dhabi have been engaging with the issue of labor conditions in the UAE long before the construction of the Saadiyat Island Campus was completed.
In New York, the Coalition for Fair Labor was formed by students and faculty in New York, asking "NYU to take proactive steps to initiate research on reforming the kafala (sponsorship) system that will continue to entrap migrant workers who are building Saadiyat Island and other UAE projects."
The Coalition created an online petition in May 2014 calling for NYU president John Sexton and Vice Chancellor Al Bloom "to resolve the NYU community’s ongoing concerns about the rights and conditions of migrant workers in the UAE."
Student leader of the Coalition and senior Kristina Bogos visited a camp that housed workers on the NYU project when she was studying in Abu Dhabi for one semester and read The Guardian’s report on labor conditions in the UAE. In an interview with Washington Square News, NYU’s student newspaper, Bogos said that she “talked to some of the workers, and [she] was shocked because it was only a 20 minute cab ride away.”
In light of the new HRW report, NYU senior Ryan McNamara said that NYU students should pressure the administration to implement certain measures.
“NYU students are implicated in these human rights violations because they benefit from them and they are in a position to do something about them,” wrote McNamara to The Gazelle.
He further suggested that bringing NYU President John Sexton’s financial bonus to the foreground could put pressure on the administration.
“John Sexton is scheduled to make a $2.5 million bonus this year, so maybe highlighting the discrepancy between the way he is paid and the Abu Dhabi workers weren't could be effective,” wrote McNamara.
A HRW video released on the Feb. 9 followed the stories of migrant workers on various Saadiyat construction projects who were deported because of striking. Some workers, forced to return and face unemployment in their homelands, expressed devastation that they could no longer provide for their families.
[/big_image]Stills from Human Rights Watch, The Dirty Secret

Student Activism in Abu Dhabi

While voices from New York ask that NYU reform the UAE’s kafala system or compensate workers, student groups in Abu Dhabi have been working with migrant worker populations at the local level and aiming for gradual change.
NYUAD student group ADvocacy emphasizes a grassroots approach. ADvocacy has long been engaged with different migrant labor populations in Abu Dhabi, developing volunteer programs to support migrant populations at camps. ADvocacy has also led students to address the human rights violations of construction migrant workers, in talks with NYUAD’s compliance team.
Senior Kimi Rodriguez, leader of ADvocacy, said a constructive approach must take into account the legal context of the UAE, rather than apply a US American context.
“A lot of these reports make it seem black and white; either you’re all in for [NYUAD] or you’re not for it at all,” said Rodriguez. “But we’re not living in a democracy. This is a completely different situation than anywhere else in the world. It’s a challenge that we undertook… The answer "you should just avoid it" is not the most constructive.”
Junior and fellow member of ADvocacy Clara Correia said that US American styles of activism do not work in all parts of the world.
“We’re being held to standards of activism that people in New York do — speaking out and voicing opinions in very confrontational ways — which isn’t well translated and isn’t even productive in the setting that we are in,” said Correia. “It’s unlikely that you’d find yourself in a place where you won’t be an active part of an exploitative system. Capitalism is an example of that. But it’s not about choosing… to be a part of it or not. It’s most importantly about how to engage with it, and be a part of it.”
Rodriguez repeated that the new HRW report is about workers on the construction of Saadiyat campus, which was completed in early 2014. Some media publications still perceive the HRW report to reveal continued or newly discovered human rights violations, such as a Feb. 11 editorial in Washington Square News, Continued Abu Dhabi labor abuses alarming.
NYUAD has since created an office to set standards for domestic workers, who are sponsored directly by faculty in some cases. Correia said that there is an estimate of 200,000 domestic workers in the UAE. Meanwhile, ADvocacy continues to work on welfare programs with the workers. Over 800 contract staff currently under NYU are directly managed by NYU within its standards.
As to the construction workers’ violations — who are the subject of the HRW report — Rodriguez said that a concrete starting point for NYU is to reimburse workers for recruitment fees, which is a main concern from the investigations. An obstacle is that many workers did not keep receipts of the recruitment fees.
However, Rodriguez said that even though NYU did not manage construction workers’ contracts, it is still accountable to violations of standards.
“I don’t think [not directly handling contracts] makes NYU any less responsible,” said Rodriguez. “We should acknowledge this, not distance ourselves from the situation.”
Student Government President Al Qubaisi saw NYUAD students at the forefront of discussions about labor conditions.
“SIGs like Advocacy and its members like Kimi [Rodriguez]… helped the Student Government organize meetings and town halls with the Office of Compliance… to really identify the issues that concern us,” wrote Al Qubaisi to The Gazelle.

NYU Hosts Panel Discussion

On the evening of Feb. 10, the day that HRW released its new report, the NYU Coalition for Fair Labor presented a panel discussion, Who Enjoys Human Rights in Abu Dhabi? with HRW representatives, journalists and NYU professors. A full recording of the panel discussion can be found on Ustream.[side-image image="" direction=left"]
Sean O’Driscoll, journalist of The Guardian’s report, recalled a September 2013 strike in which project managers entered the labor camps to negotiate with strike leaders. Meanwhile, other managers were taking pictures. Anyone who spoke up was arrested the next day, along with others who were taken indiscriminately. Over 200 people were sent home, O’Driscoll said, "many without a chance to get their shoes."
The most pressing issue, the panelists agreed, is the inability of workers to raise issues to their employers without suffering serious consequences. Unless they can exercise their right to organize, no progress can be made. Striking is strictly prohibited in the UAE.
Nicholas McGeehan, recently blacklisted from the UAE due to Human Rights Watch’s coverage, voiced approval for NYUAD’s Statement of Labor Values, released a few years ago, but said that theoretical standards are only as good as their enforcement. To this day, he says, NYU has no penalty system in place for those subcontractors who fail to meet these standards.
Sarah Leah Wilson, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, urged international agents operating in the Emirates to serve as a positive influence, criticizing their failure to adequately recognize the political reality of their relationship with government partners. Wilson suggested that Abu Dhabi relies on NYU, the Louvre and the Guggenheim to largely contribute to the Emirate's development as a global cultural center and that these institutions consequently have more bargaining power than they currently exert. If commitments like NYU's were only enforced, she noted, it would make a difference.
Vasuki Nesiah from NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study challenged audience members at the discussion to consider their own position in the profit and value chains for these construction projects and reflect on the wide-reaching effects of the rights violations.

Engagement with Migrant Worker Populations

NYUAD senior Mohit Mandal, who is working on a senior Capstone project based on the break room for security guards in Saadiyat campus’ lower basement, said that it is better for NYU to engage with labor problems than to turn away.
“I feel a personal engagement with a lot of these workers, given that they come from a very similar culture context [to where] I come from,” said Mandal, who grew up in Mumbai, India.
Mandal’s academic interest in migrant worker populations began in his sophomore year, when he played street cricket with Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi barbers in a parking lot outside of Madinat Zayed mall for 15 weeks. Mandal said that it is important to think about workers in human, everyday and material terms rather than in the abstract idea of worker emancipation. His research is focused on these questions.
For Mandal, there are two ways to approach the issue of labor standard violations in the UAE. The first approach sees NYUAD’s presence in Abu Dhabi as a positive opportunity to push against labor laws. The second approach claims that, given that NYU understood the difficult legal structure of the UAE before the school was built, it had a moral imperative to not engage in the first place.
“I belong to the former school of thought,” said Mandal. “I believe some engagement, even if it’s imperfect engagement, is better than no engagement at all.”
Mandal criticized popular media coverage for oversimplifying migrant workers into what he called a clump category. He pointed out that the HRW report title, Migrant Workers Rights on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, takes construction workers to encompass all migrant workers.
Rodriguez also points to the diversity of migrant workers, as she works with different populations through ADvocacy.
“The multifaceted aspects of a very culturally diverse community [is] one thing that I think everyone fails to see,” said Rodriguez. “[Migrant workers] have cultural adjustment issues and to see how that parallels with our experiences here in this university is just so interesting. People need to be exposed to these different stories.”
[side-image image="" direction=right"]
ADvocacy is set to roll out a speakers series with students, faculty and staff on the issue of labor conditions, while maintaining welfare programs with migrant worker camps and communities.
While Correia acknowledged that such student activities, and in particular ADvocacy’s approach, is not a solution to human rights violations nor suitable for all students, it is a good starting point. The group’s grassroots approach has a community effect, rather than solely tackling human rights problems.
“Beyond the volunteering realm, what ADvocacy brings is an opportunity for students to break down the idea of exoticizing the workers,” said Correia. “You work with them in a very proximate way that’s very different to a lot of the articles that you read.”
Similarly, Mandal’s ethnographic research and another senior’s work with Ethiopian migrant workers outside of campus, do not aim to solve human rights problems, but rather aim to understand the situation more deeply. Another student initiative, in partnership with ADvocacy and NYUAD’s Office of Social Responsibility, is developing resources for on-campus workers and opened a community library recently.
Rodriguez said that, for a country that is 43 years old, with a particular power structure, it is unrealistic to demand instant change.
“It’s very top-down … people are expecting things to happen so fast when [in reality] it’s gonna be gradual change," said Rodriguez.
Correction: 15 Feb. 2015
A previous version of this article claimed that Kristina Bogos visited a construction site on Saadiyat Island.
Khadeeja Farooqui and Albert Cotugno contributed reporting from New York.
Graphics and illustrations by Megan Eloise. 
Joey Bui is editor-in-chief. Email them at
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