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Report Finds Mistreatment of Workers Building NYU Abu Dhabi Campus

A new report examining the treatment of workers who built the NYU Abu Dhabi campus has highlighted, in effect, the broader issue of protections needed for the laborers building the rapidly expanding number of universities and cultural institutions in Gulf countries.

The independent inquiry found that roughly 10,000 of the 30.000 workers who built New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus lacked the labor protections the university and its partners had tried to provide.

“We acknowledge the lapses, will learn from them, and will attempt to rectify them,” wrote NYU President John Sexton in a school-wide message. (All of the university’s communications about the matter were done in prepared statements.) The violations that the inquiry found included the mistreatment of striking workers, the failure to reimburse recruitment fees paid by workers, the retention of passports by employers, forced overtime, substandard housing, and delayed, unpaid or underpaid wages.

Criticism of NYU for labor practices at its Abu Dhabi campus increased after The New York Times reported on work conditions there. The newspaper quoted immigrant laborers, most of them recruited from South Asia, saying that they’d been asked to pay recruitment fees, parted from their passports, and crammed into crowded living conditions. In light of these allegations, NYU and the Abu Dhabi government partner Tamkeen appointed an independent investigative firm, Nardello and Company, to look at labor practices at the Saadiyat island site.

The report found that, in general, NYU tried to comply with the labor standards, including the provision of fair wages, compensation for overtime and protection against abuse. “Our investigation found that the commitment was real, implemented in good faith and, to a large measure, effective,” the report said.

But the report found that while companies directly hired by NYU tried to comply with the standards NYU asked for, other subcontractors did not. “This practice of exempting companies from compliance created a significant gap in coverage that disenfranchised thousands of workers from the protections contemplated by the labor guidelines,” the report said.

The 72-page report was released on April 16 and based on extensive document reviews, site visits and interviews, including interviews with approximately 340 construction workers.

As a response, NYU and Tamkeen accepted in a joint statement the responsibility for the exemption policy and committed to paying all the workers that were formerly excluded from the labor guidelines, with a third party to oversee the process. They also said that NYU Abu Dhabi Institute will begin some research into the subject of recruitment fees paid by migrant workers.

An NYU professor, Andrew Ross, attempted to go to Abu Dhabi last month to research labor conditions but was not allowed to board a plane in New York because the Emirati government would not have let him into the country.

Serious concerns about abuse of migrant workers have been also discussed for projects in Abu Dhabi that will create branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums. Through three reports, Human Rights Watch has documented migrant worker abuses on the Saadiyat Island site. According to these reports, contractors working for the two government development entities on the NYU and Louvre sites informed United Arab Emirates authorities about the strike, leading to the deportation of several hundred striking workers.

“NYU, the Louvre, and the Guggenheim should surely understand by now that they can’t blindly accept the UAE authorities’ assurances that workers’ rights are being respected,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division in a statement. “They need to exert their influence much more forcefully and demand much more in return for their presence on Saadiyat Island.”

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