Talking About Lives, Not Numbers

There is no justification for human rights abuse, nor is there any excuse for neglecting the welfare of any individual. The accusations against NYU Abu ...

Feb 14, 2015

There is no justification for human rights abuse, nor is there any excuse for neglecting the welfare of any individual. The accusations against NYU Abu Dhabi outlined in the recent Human Rights Watch report, and numerous past publications, are serious and should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that NYUAD is most prominently in the limelight after these reports are published, and that outsiders view any reports of progress being made on these issues as reactive to these reports rather than originating in policies previously put in place.
Washington Square News recently published an editorial responding to the HRW report. WSN calls out NYUAD’s apparent complacency about labor issues and suggests that, because the pioneers of NYUAD knew that it would be operating in a region notorious for labor violations, the NYUAD project should never have been implemented — much less conceived. In that manner, the article implies substandard labor compliance would not have been an issue at all, and NYU would not have diverted into a “troubling direction … that [makes] NYU look more like a for-profit corporation every day.”
While I am glad that NYU’s official student newspaper is engaged in the dialogue about labor, and positive that the continued criticism ensures that labor compliance remains at the top of NYUAD’s agenda, the article fails to take into account the complexity of the situation and does not add constructive criticism to the conversation about labor in NYUAD. The implied solution is that NYU should pick up and leave the UAE because our continued presence contributes to human rights abuses — we should have never come here in the first place.
This line of reasoning is akin to saying that no one should enter a situation that they know will be problematic; that the possibility of being affiliated with difficulty should be avoided at all costs. But how can anyone incite change if all problematic situations are left alone? How can the necessary shifts happen in a society isolated from new ideas? I am not belittling the labor problem, nor am I claiming that NYU’s presence will necessarily be a game changer for the UAE. I am, however, saying that we can and have made positive change for the workers under the immediate supervision of NYUAD.
It is disheartening that the WSN editorial states that NYU “promote[s] giving back to the community and helping the disadvantaged in relatively small ways.” What means of giving back counts as significant? Over the last few months, the number of contract staff directly under NYUAD’s management has grown from around 200 to over 800, and NYUAD has created a robust support system for these employees. This includes free English classes and integration into the student, staff and faculty community through free use of library and gym resources, as well as participation in intramural sports. In fact, the staff teams consistently beat our own athletes in multiple sports. While these initiatives do not downgrade the seriousness of the accusations outlined in the HRW report, they should also not be disregarded as “relatively small,” as WSN writes.
It is important to distinguish, however, between the workers that are directly subcontracted by NYUAD and Tamkeen; those who receive the above support, and those that do not. The HRW report is referring exclusively to the workers subcontracted by Al Futtain Carillion, who was awarded the design and build contract by Mubadala Development Company, who in turn is responsible for the construction of NYUAD’s Saadiyat Campus. While both are part of the NYUAD project, AFC had a separate compliance monitor, EC Harris, for its day-to-day activities. While EC Harris reported to Mott McDonald — the monitor that did the final oversight for NYUAD — Tamkeen and AFC, all NYUAD’s information about the workers referred to in the HRW report to is dependent on what EC Harris reported to Mott McDonald. The structure of these relationships and what it implies about NYUAD’s relationship with its contractors merits an article in itself.
The HRW report is largely a repetition of the findings published in The Guardian, The Independent and the New York Times in previous years. It needs to be made clear that all of these accusations refer to the construction phase of our new campus, not to anything that is currently ongoing. While I cannot confidently say that these accusations have been entirely addressed, it is a misconception to refer to them as continuing. Again, during the construction phase, the workers that these reports refer to were subcontracted by AFC, who was monitored by EC Harris — which limited NYUAD’s means of directly accessing information about the accusations at the time they were made. This does not make NYUAD less accountable to these workers, but rather puts the issue in context.
Because the contractors employed by NYUAD do not exclusively do business with NYUAD, the amount of leverage that NYUAD has in the way that these contractors operate is minimal, especially where recruitment fees are concerned. Yes, changes certainly can happen in our relationships with these subcontractors, but they are not going to happen overnight.
Cross-campus discussions between New York and Abu Dhabi about labor are important and necessary. However, such discussions will only be productive if both sides come with a thorough understanding of what is at hand. NYUAD is making a difference for the workers it directly employs, but perhaps not fast enough and not affecting a high enough number of people that critics would like. At the end of the day, however, we need to remember that we are talking about the lives of individuals, not numbers.
Kimberly Rodriguez is a contributing writer. Email her at
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