Human Rights Watch Expert Leads Labor Discussion in NY

On Feb. 26, 2014 New York University hosted a talk titled “Human Rights and Migrant Workers in Abu Dhabi: New Perspectives.” Human Rights Watch’s Gulf ...

Mar 15, 2014

On Feb. 26, 2014 New York University hosted a talk titled “Human Rights and Migrant Workers in Abu Dhabi: New Perspectives.” Human Rights Watch’s Gulf expert Nicholas McGeehan presented recent findings on the topic. Additionally, NYU professor Andrew Ross, a vocal critic of NYU’s expansion plan, and NYU’s Student Labor Action Movement gave a brief commentary. The event ended with a Q&A from the audience.
After finding the event through Facebook, NYUAD students asked to join the talk via Skype, but due to technical difficulties, the connection was cut short. In the interest of transparency and accessibility, The Gazelle offers excerpts of this talk:

UAE’s PR Campaign

McGeehan: You might say that NYU has set up in a country whose labor system facilitates forced labor, which is engaged in a very aggressive, crack-down feudal expression — which forces the foundation of academic freedom. How does it [the UAE] get away with it, you might say? To my mind, it gets away with it, as I alluded to you earlier, by this PR campaign. If you don’t want to be progressive, if you don’t think it’s worth getting your citizens and the people of your country basic liberties and freedoms, the way to get around that is to bring in institutions who, by their very presence, will give the impression that you are progressive. So by having the Louvre, by having the Guggenheim, by having NYU, by having all the multinational firms that they do — that is one way that this country has been able to project this narrative of progressiveness and actually deflect criticisms … That’s my view on the issue.

Independent monitors

McGeehan: The kafala system, or sponsorship-based employment, is perhaps something you can’t expect NYU to do anything about because it’s in the law … So [institutions like NYUAD] said, “Okay, we’ve come up with a set of standards.” And they are put in place by independent monitors. [They said] “these independent monitors will … they’ll take a look at them [the sites] and they’ll make sure that we’re adhering to these standards.” … That’s a very difficult thing to do effectively.
But the reason it’s difficult to do because there’s such a complex labor supply chain out there. Effectively what happens is that there’s a shifting mass of subcontractors at the bottom of this chain. These are the locally owned firms — could be 50 employees, could be 500 employees. And these are guys who are bringing workers in, confiscating their passports … not paying their wages, keeping them in terrible accommodations. These are the villains, if you will — the direct abusers. Further up the chain, you’ll have to go through two or three stages before you get to the main contractor. Now the main contractor could be a large … construction firm, or it could be one of the many, many locally owned construction firms. And in-between, there could be a number of other actors.
So what you’re asking NYU to do, or you’re asking the Guggenheim to do, is you’re asking the guys at the top to regulate the guys at the bottom because the government won’t do it. That’s the point.
…  Are [independent monitors] good or bad? … This is an ability to raise standards … and that’s a good thing. Because that can be used as a stepping stone to reform. You could use this, and these projects, as an example of how companies with a reputation to protect can ensure that their workers are properly protected.
… If you’re a cynic, what they are is a way of supplementing the cross-sector state-led reform that we need … If they’re not a stepping stone, what they effectively do is put in place two-tier labor. That means if you’re a worker on an NYU site, you have the protection of this … But if you’re cleaning floors in a hotel on the side of the road, you don’t have any protection. Two-tier labor system.
Furthermore, when international journalists or dignitaries come knocking, they’ll be directed to the Saadiyat site because that’s their best practice. And they’ll come away thinking the government is OK.
Ross: In the case of NYU, there are actually three monitors ... There is NYU itself, there's EC Harris and then there is Mott MacDonald. The last two have been appointed by the Abu Dhabi authorities. They have strong ties to the government and they have strong ties to the industry. So that's not an independent monitor; they have no interest whatsoever in doing a thorough and comprehensive job … We gave a list of third-party monitors to NYU … [But] we were told informally — and I have no problem saying this, that NYU’s hands were tied ... And that the Abu Dhabi authorities were calling the shots. And it's going to keep on happening. This is what we warned the administration about.
McGeehan: Mott is also in charge of the sewage and the electricity.
Ross: There you go – It couldn't get more involved than Mott MacDonald ...
McGeehan: Mott MacDonald is actually a contractor on Saadiyat.
Ross: Responsible for sewage and gas — so actually, it gets worse. And if you follow the trail of all the connections between those companies and other companies, it's pretty incestuous … Really, to put it bluntly, this is passing the buck. It's sort of morally unacceptable. And the outcome is, if you don't have an independent monitoring in place, you have a series of embarrassments, to say the least. Every time a researcher goes there to visit the labor camps and sites ... they find things that contradict the things said by the monitors. The result: It tarnishes NYU's name. And it tarnishes the name of all of those who are associated with NYU.

Construction on Saadiyat

McGeehan: [Some institutions] have come to light. One is footage of a camp, and this footage suggests that workers are living fifteen to a room. It shows bunk beds. It shows mattresses placed upon bunk beds in the room. It shows exposed electrical wires. It shows insect-infested kitchens. It shows a warped fire escape with a hole punched in it — as if someone was trying to get to the other side.
… Accommodation is the symptom of the problem. It’s the fact that we have a highly exploitative labor system that allows employers to house workers in terrible conditions … It’s the system that deprives people of their dignity, not the housing. The analogy would be: If I was a slave in a nice house, it doesn’t matter; you’re still a slave … I’m always worried to think that we shouldn’t limit activism to housing because it doesn’t address the structural violence of what goes on.
… My concern always being that [the codes] would deflect attention away from the abuses of the rest of the country. That people would just say, “Well, look at Saadiyat! That's wonderful, the UAE is the regional leader on this issue.” The fact [is] that it would be so easy — so easy — to actually find workers who have been treated in the appalling manner that has been documented for years on this site ... even me with my cynicism and my lack of faith in the UAE authorities to do anything that involves human rights ... I didn't think I would see what I have.

Activism on the Square

Ross: I'm thankful a group of students here at NYU got wind of [HRW’s reports on Saadiyat] and said, “Maybe we would have a better chance from within of exerting pressure to get some kind of response.” So we formed an internal pressure group, and it's called the NYU Labor Coalition … We've jumped back into action over the past few weeks or so because of an additional level of scrutiny of practices on Saadiyat Island following [the] report from a team from the Guardian and the Observer … The coalition’s goal from the beginning wasn't just to ensure that classrooms at NYU Abu Dhabi would be built and maintained by workers who were well-treated. The much larger goal was to try and use the brand names, NYU, Guggenheim, Louvre to leverage better regional labor standards for the Gulf as a whole.
Nate Christensen: I’m part of a group here at NYU called SLAM, for student labor action … We try to organize student worker power on campus to ensure that NYU is not tied up in these labor abuses that we’ve heard about today … A lot of this construction that’s happening at NYU Abu Dhabi is happening on the backs of the most highly indebted class of students and graduates in the country. So we try and organize students and faculty to push back against a lot of these issues that we’ve just heard about.

Question from Audience

If Abu Dhabi is so rich, why wouldn't they just pay their workers a decent wage?
McGeehan: Because its not about money, it's not about profit. It's about the impulse to control a very large foreign workforce. The kafala system is all about taking a step back from regulation and saying, “You are the individuals’ employer, you have the right to do.” And unfortunately, over time it's just become incredibly exploitative. One of the issues we haven't talked about so much is the appalling racial discrimination that takes place. You have effectively everyone stratified along national lines and racial lines, that leads to a horrendous sort of endemic racial discrimination.

Question from NYUAD

We also wanted to ask about facilitating more bilateral dialogue on this issue. We are wondering about what avenues have already been tried to host this dialogue and what we should do in the future.
McGeehan: Facilitating a bilateral dialogue — it'd be wonderful … If you could, for example, invite an organization like Human Rights Watch to go over to the UAE. I'm not sure if you know, but after my research, I was blacklisted as no longer allowed in the country. So was my colleague, and our executive director was denied entry to the country. So should we be given an invite, I'm not sure we'd be able to act upon it. I think if there are NYU students and there obviously are NYU students interested in this issue at hand, then I think you're in a wonderful position to get something like that started and we'd be happy to advise on who you might find.
Costanza Maio is the news editor. Megan Eloise is a contributing writer. Email them at
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