Investigation Finds 10,000 Workers Excluded from NYU’s Labor Guidelines

Nardello & Co.’s investigations, released last Thursday, reveal that approximately one third of the total 30,000-person force working on the ...

Apr 18, 2015

Nardello & Co.’s investigations, released last Thursday, reveal that approximately one third of the total 30,000-person force working on the construction of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Campus was excluded from the labor guidelines set by NYU and its partners. The firm was appointed last June to independently investigate the allegations of labor abuses reported by the Guardian and the New York Times.
The Nardello investigations’ central finding is that most of the labor standard violations occurred under contracts that were exempted from the labor guidelines.
In a de facto policy, the contractors Mubadala Development Company, Al Futtaim Carillion and EC Harris agreed that subcontractors would not need to comply with the labor guidelines if their work on the construction of the Saadiyat campus was shorter than 31 days and the subcontract package value was less than one million USD.
Workers under exempted contracts were not only excluded from the benefits of the labor guidelines, but in many cases were also left unmonitored by compliance monitors. Abuses occurring under these exempted contracts include workers being placed in squalid living conditions, as found by the New York Times. Human Rights Watch’s February 2015 report confirmed those findings, reporting that some of the rooms posed health risks, with exposed wires, infestation of insects and filthy kitchens.
Nardello found that those workers were contracted by City Falcon, one of the contractors exempted from the labor guidelines. Nardello’s findings corroborated many other instances of abuse reported by the New York Times, the Guardian and HRW, many of which fell under the de facto exemption policy.
In a conference call with news sources from the NYU global network, Daniel Nardello said that NYU failed to carry out its guidelines.
“Media articles question whether the commitment by NYU and the government partners was a real one,” said Nardello. “I think we found it was, [but] the problems we found were in the implementation and the execution of the commitment.”
The report points out that, for the most part, NYU and its government partners were not aware of the de facto exemption policy. According to the Nardello report, personnel of NYU and its partners who knew of the exemptions either believed that exemptions would be made on a case-by-case basis or did not realize the specific parameters for exemption. NYU’s Statement of Labor Values and 14 Points do not mention the possibility of any worker being exempt from its labor standards.
“I don’t think there was a conscious effort to pull the wool over NYU’s eyes. I think that, as we say a couple times in the report … There was a problem of miscommunication,” Nardello told The Gazelle. “There was an overly complicated monitoring scheme and, if you will, too many cooks in the kitchen.”
The labor guidelines are made up of NYU’s Statement of Labor Values and 14 Points, and implemented according to the university’s Supplementary Specifications, which are not publicly published.
According to the Nardello report, confirmed instances of labor guideline violations include mistreatment of striking workers, ineffective reimbursement of recruitment fees paid by workers, passports retained by employers, delayed, unpaid or underpaid wages, forced overtime and substandard housing.
Immediately following the release of the Nardello report, NYU President John Sexton sent a school-wide email to acknowledge NYU’s oversight and outline NYU’s response going forward.
“Neither we nor Tamkeen knew about the exemption policy or how widely it was being applied,” wrote Sexton. “That is why we were so taken aback by the media accounts and NGO reports of substandard treatment of workers. Both we and Tamkeen commit to ensuring that we will not allow such a compliance gap to occur in the future.”
In a joint statement, NYU and Tamkeen accepted responsibility for the errors made in monitoring compliance.
Sexton committed to paying all the workers that were formerly excluded from the labor guidelines, with a third party to oversee the process. Sexton also wrote that a small number of workers who were under the labor guidelines, but were not properly paid by their employers, would also be paid.
Other violations also occurred under contractors obliged to implement the labor guidelines. The Nardello report found that approximately ten percent of those workers lived in substandard housing.
As for recruitment fees, Sexton committed to launching a research initiative, with the aim to “implement potential widespread solutions to this transnational challenge.”
Senior Mastewal Taddesse Terefe, whose senior project involves ethnographic research of Ethiopian migrant workers in Abu Dhabi, thought that there may be some complications going forward.
“I think some promises may be hard to deliver on, for example, if some workers who are owed money have already left the UAE,” wrote Terefe to The Gazelle.
She believes that, now that allegations have been investigated, NYU and its government partners will work toward a more robust system for future compliance, in addition to establishing a better understanding of the labor guidelines.
“Even then, given the complexity of our context and the issues involved, I don't expect that NYUAD will completely free itself from labor compliance issues in the future,” she added.
The Nardello report concludes that NYU was unrealistic in its labor guidelines regarding recruitment fees.
NYU’s compliance monitors interpreted the labor guidelines to mean that workers will be reimbursed for recruitment fees paid for work specifically on the construction of Saadiyat campus. This interpretation excludes almost all of the total workforce. Nardello found that only 20 workers were reimbursed, although 85 percent of all workers paid recruitment fees.
Furthermore, workers cannot be reimbursed without receipt of payment, which most workers do not have due to the fact that they paid the fees in different countries with varying levels of scrupulousness towards accountability.
“To some extent, NYU and its partners fell victim to their own laudable ambition,” the report claims. “Reimbursement should have been provided under guidelines that reflected the complexities of the situation, rather than using interpretations that effectively disqualified all workers from reimbursement.”
Another fault of NYU, according to the report, was an excess of compliance monitors that resulted in miscommunication and lack of transparency. Nardello recommended simplifying the system to one compliance monitor. NYU is currently in the process of hiring a new compliance monitor.
Passport retention was a more serious problem than reported by compliance monitors. In fact, 95 percent of the workers interviewed by Nardello & Co. confirmed that their employer held their passport, which is a violation of the guidelines even if it is done with the consent of the employees. Furthermore, while in some cases it was found that employees preferred for employers to hold their passports, 28 percent of the 296 interviewed employees said that they did not provide their passport voluntarily.
As for the mistreatment and deportation of striking workers, the Nardello report found the strikes to be more complex than reported by the media.
The Nardello report found that some workers were striking in October 2013 because they were well when working on the construction of NYUAD’s Saadiyat Campus, and consequently did not want to be transferred to another job when their contract ended. Other workers were striking for reasons such as resentment at being paid at a lower tier than their colleagues.
The Nardello report found that approximately 95 percent of present and former workers were paid according to the labor guidelines’ minimum of 800 AED per month. It found that 85 percent of workers deported for striking were at least paid this minimum wage, and that at least 1000 workers returned to work.
Kimi Rodriguez, senior and leader of ADvocacy, a student group that provides welfare assistance to migrant communities in Abu Dhabi, said that students need to stay up-to-date in order to advance the conversation on labor abuse.
“If students want administration to be more responsive on concerns about labor, then they need to be updated on what the administration has been doing and currently is doing,” said Rodriguez.
She said that students have a powerful voice in the university, but are often set back because they are not informed enough. According to Rodriguez, students tend to talk about labor when a news event occurs, but do not follow through to understand university response. As a result, conversations about labor keep returning to the same questions and answers, such as explaining the Statement of Labor Values.
“To have to keep refreshing and going back … stalls the conversation,” said Rodriguez. “I think people need to make the effort to be informed. That’s the only way that we can be involved in the conversation moving forward.”
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