New York Students Release Demand Letter on Labor Standards

On Feb.17, following the release of a new Human Rights Watch report revealing labor standard violations on Saadiyat Island construction projects, NYU ...

Feb 21, 2015

On Feb.17, following the release of a new Human Rights Watch report revealing labor standard violations on Saadiyat Island construction projects, NYU Coalition for Fair Labor, along with ten other groups at NYU, sent an open demand letter to President John Sexton, NYU Board of Trustees Chairman Martin Lipton and Vice Chancellor Al Bloom.
The undersigned groups include five NYU Law student groups and the American Association of University Professors, NYU Chapter. In the letter, the groups claim that they “continue to be appalled by increasing reports of human rights violations that occurred during the construction of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, and which seem set to continue.”
The letter demands a public response from university administration by 1 March 2015 and, according to the Coalition’s press release, “promises further escalation if this deadline is not met.”
The four demands of the letter are summarized in this excerpt from the Coalition’s blog post:
"We demand that NYU:
  1. Justly compensate NYUAD construction workers who were jailed and deported
  2. Secure workers’ freedom of association, right to organize, right to strike and collectively bargain by amending the Statement of Labor Values
  3. Disclose the confidential Code of Conduct
  4. Implement the Statement of Labor Values by appointing independent labor compliance monitors."
When contacted by The Gazelle, John Sexton and Al Bloom asked NYUAD Director of Public Affairs and Community Relations Greg Bruno to provide the following response:
"We have received the letter from student, faculty and worker organizations at NYU and will be responding to them directly. But speaking generally, we take seriously any suggestion that our labor standards may not have been adhered to in some cases. This is what led to the appointment of Nardello & Co., an international investigation firm, which has been tasked with examining these allegations, and whose report is expected this spring."
"It is worth pointing out that the matters raised in the recent letter, in the HRW report and in media reports from last spring are based upon the same claims,” Bruno added. “They should not in any way lead one to conclude that: ‘violations… seem set to continue.’ In fact, all evidence would suggest the contrary. With the construction phase of our campus complete, and our move to Saadiyat Island now complete, we continue to build upon our successful track record with our operational workers to ensure that they are treated in accordance with our labor standards and the values of our community. Not only do members of the [NYUAD] community personally know these men and women, but the joint compliance program for campus operations that we have developed with our government partners has proven highly effective at identifying and resolving issues in an expedient manner."
Andrew Ross, a founding member of the Coalition and faculty leader, said that a demand letter was necessary because NYU administration has ignored the Coalition’s advice on past accounts.
“NYUAD's name would not be associated with labor abuse today if the administration had listened to our advocacy of independent monitoring and other labor standards,” wrote Ross to The Gazelle.
Ross, on a more positive note, pointed out that many different groups at NYU have been pursuing change.
“NYU students and faculty, in Abu Dhabi and NYC, are now insisting that NYU be part of the solution,” added Ross. “We'd like to see the administration take publicly proactive steps, as a research university should, in coming up with solutions to some of our host society's challenges — in this case, reform of the kafala sponsorship system.”
First-year law student Astha Sharma Pokharel, a member of one of the undersigned groups, NYU Law Students for Economic Justice, said that she and other law students had been in touch with the Coalition before the HRW report was released.
“We thought the release of the report would be a good time to build momentum and get more students including law students involved around this issue,” said Pokharel.
According to Pokharel, 10 to 15 students gathered after the release of the HRW report on 10 Feb. to draft the demand letter. Once the first draft was complete, they circulated the letter with all the undersigned groups. From the 10-15 Feb., they received feedback and made final changes and released the letter on 17 Feb.
Student leader of the Coalition Kristina Bogos reiterated Ross’ opinion that there has been a lack of meaningful response from NYU. She also said that the Coalition has been frustrated with the lack of transparency in the selection of a compliance monitor to replace Mott Macdonald. The Coalition has proposed that the Workers Rights Consortium replace Mott Macdonald, but the WRC does not seem to be a finalist. Bogos added that the Coalition has been pushing for research into labor conditions in the UAE for a long time, with no response from NYU.
“We’ve repeatedly said there are many students and faculty at NYU and at NYUAD that are interested in such initiatives,” said Bogos. “We’ve called for … cross-campus collaboration regarding work on the issue of labor in Abu Dhabi.”
Bogos reached out to the leader of ADvocacy, a student group that provides welfare assistance to migrant communities in Abu Dhabi, Kimi Rodriguez on 14 Feb. with the list of demands, but Rodriguez did not agree to sign. Rodriguez wrote back to Bogos with her criticisms of the letter’s four demands.
“I replied to [Bogos] and I told her why I disagree — I told her specifically that I think there are other more constructive conversations to be happening,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez did not think that the demand for an independent compliance monitor was necessary because the selection process is already underway. As for the demand about the right for workers to strike, Rodriguez said that it doesn’t take the context of the UAE into consideration.
“The [letter’s] demands are very focused on NYUAD’s relationships with the workers themselves and essentially ignores all the middlemen — all the contractors — so I thought, why don’t we create something that’s [focused on] NYUAD and the contractors… that creates pressure on the contractors as opposed to presenting that NYUAD has so much power over [the contracts of] the workers,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez did not see the final draft of the letter, as she did not agree to sign. Rodriguez has not received a response from Bogos.
Pokharel emphasized the need for cross-campus conversations, while recognizing that students in Abu Dhabi and New York might have different strategies. Pokharel said that, contrary to what some groups in New York have been expressing, expecting NYU not to engage with difficult issues is not a solution.
“These human rights abuses happen whether or not NYU is there,” said Pokharel. ‘It’s not like the appearance of NYU in Abu Dhabi created the human rights abuses and its disappearance will make them go away.”
According to Pokharel, NYU should assume more responsibility because it derives its legitimacy from being a bastion of human rights. If the administration cannot make changes, then it is the responsibility of students and faculty to demand it.
“That’s what links us together — we’re the constituency that NYU as an institution is getting its legitimacy from and feeding its narrative to… we have a responsibility to work together to hold [NYU] accountable,” said Pokharel.
Joey Bui is editor-in-chief. Email her at
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