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NYU Abu Dhabi Work Force Is at Risk, Report Says

A new report from a faculty-student alliance at New York University charges that the university’s Abu Dhabi campus has not taken adequate steps to eliminate the possibility of forced labor years after the issue first surfaced.

Sahiba Gill, a law student set to graduate from New York University this month, was the main author of the 129-page document, which alleges that thousands of workers who helped build NYU’s $1 billion Abu Dhabi campus starting a decade ago are still owed millions of dollars. The report, “Forced Labor at NYU Abu Dhabi: Compliance and the Global University,” was released by the Coalition for Fair Labor, a faculty-student alliance that advocates for high labor standards for employees on NYU projects. The report reviews previous documents on the issue, public statements made by NYU administrators and faculty members, and what is publicly known about NYU’s monitoring of labor practices on the Abu Dhabi campus in recent years.

“There is no reason NYU shouldn’t be able to support modern, 21st-century labor and compliance standards,” Gill said in an interview. “Available evidence shows they have not.”

“Forced labor” refers to situations where workers are coerced through threats, intimidation, or violence, or are unable to leave a job because the workers’ employer holds their passports. Often workers are charged high fees for getting a job and, if they do not have the cash, are loaned the money at high interest rates by their recruiter, making it difficult for them to ever leave employment. In Gulf countries, workers who don’t speak English or Arabic are at especially high risk of such exploitation.

NYU strongly denied the report’s findings, saying in a statement that the coalition’s “assessment is neither right nor fair” and that the report’s title was “both incorrect and inflammatory.” The university statement went on to say the Abu Dhabi campus “has a strong set of labor standards and a robust compliance monitoring program in place.”

NYU Abu Dhabi hires outside companies to provide workers for maintenance, cleaning, landscaping, food services and many other roles.

The labor-coalition report is the latest in a string of accusations about labor conditions for workers at the campus and in similar projects in Abu Dhabi, including a 2014 New York Times report.  Human Rights Watch has also published reports about labor conditions for the predominantly South Asian workers recruited to work on Saadiyat Island, where the NYU Abu Dhabi campus and other cultural institutions have been built. NYU has said in the past that most lapses were due to subcontractors over whom it did not have direct control. In 2015, the president of NYU at the time, John Sexton, said, “We acknowledge the lapses, will learn from them, and will attempt to rectify them.” (See a related article, “Report Finds Mistreatment of Workers Building NYU Abu Dhabi Campus.”)

The new faculty-student alliance report says the risk for forced labor “remains significant” and the risk would be lower “if due diligence was enacted.” It also charges that NYU Abu Dhabi failed to reimburse fees paid by workers in order to be considered for the jobs as far back as 2009, as it promised to do.

Among the report’s recommendations: NYU Abu Dhabi should more actively ensure compliance with local laws, better assess the risk of forced labor and move more effectively to remedy violations. The report suggests that NYU Abu Dhabi check directly with workers to see if they are in possession of their passports—unless the passports have been given to the company employing them for paperwork relevant to their employment—and make sure the workers did not pay recruitment fees and are not in debt for those fees.

Gill, who lived in Abu Dhabi for two years, said she became aware of the labor issues when reports first started surfacing in 2013 and 2014 and that she had followed the issue closely since then. The coalition’s report, which she said represents eight months of work, was reviewed by a dozen NYU faculty members before its release.

NYU had been planning to release a compliance report on NYU Abu Dhabi labor standards next month, but instead brought forward publication of the report—titled “External Labor Compliance Monitoring at NYU Abu Dhabi”—as a swift response to the release of Gill’s Coalition for Fair Labor document. The university report was produced by Impactt Ltd., a 20-year-old London-based ethical trade consultancy.

The Impactt consultancy’s document is based on audits of 15 contractors employing more than 800 workers on the Abu Dhabi campus over a 16-month period ending in March 2017, with two limited follow-ups through March of this year. The report said it identified 87 cases of nonconformance to labor rules, but that 77 of them had been rectified during the course of the study. Of the remaining ten, seven involved contractors no longer associated with NYU in Abu Dhabi. Over all, the report said, it found “a good level of compliance among contractors and a high level of satisfaction among workers.”

A survey conducted for the report found that NYU Abu Dhabi workers were happy about access to English lessons and sports facilities and generally felt they were treated with respect. But they often did not feel they were paid enough. The Impactt report also recommended that the university work harder to ensure workers have their own passports and are paid for overtime.

In an interview, Gill said she applauded release of the university’s compliance report, but said, “It is clear systematic reforms are still needed to bring labor standards to an adequate level.”

Since the close scrutiny of labor conditions on the campus in 2014 and 2015, labor activists believe the attention devoted to the issue and follow-up monitoring had faded until this month. Paula Chakravartty, one of the professors who reviewed the coalition’s report prior to its release, told The New York Times she believed “that as public pressure moved away, the issue was put on the back burner.”

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