Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Labor Issue of The Gazelle, the student publication at NYU Abu Dhabi. It has been reprinted with permission as a part of an ongoing collaboration between The Gazelle and WSN to connect our two campuses.
In an exclusive interview, Vice Chancellor Al Bloom sat down with The Gazelle to talk about labor policies at NYU Abu Dhabi and the development of these policies. Here’s what he had to say.
The Gazelle: We were reading through the compliance reports, the statement of labor values and some external analyses of the statement of labor values. One of the questions that has been raised is, what does the university do to ensure compliance to the statement of values on a regular basis.
Dr. Al Bloom: To ensure that that statement of values has teeth, we together articulated the set of values and agreed with our government partners to share in enforcing them. Enforcement starts from the insistence that any contracts governing workers who work directly for us or in building our campus require adherence to those values. NYUAD hires directly the workers that serve our campus, like those in food services, the bookstore and security. Those who are building the Saadiyat campus are hired under contracts governed by our partners. There is a joint agreement and one that we believe in strongly, that all contracts that govern the rights and conditions of those workers meet the labor values. So the first step was to make sure that our contracts reflect commitment to those values.
The second is to monitor observance of the contracts, to make sure that our workers are accorded the rights and the conditions stipulated in them. For the workers that NYUAD hires, we do our own monitoring. We have staff who undertake this responsibility, who in fact interview all of our workers once a month to make sure they are treated in line with our expectations, that the workers perceive us living up to those values. And if we find that that is not the case, we respond. The system works consistently and well.
In addition, our partners and NYUAD jointly hire a firm — I’m sure you’ve seen the name, Mott MacDonald — a large corporation that has expertise in monitoring compliance to standards. They do monthly surveys of the both the workers that our partners, through contractors, employ and those we employ directly. They visit the workers’ job sites as well as their accommodations; talk with the workers; enable workers to register any complaints they may have; make sure that, for example, accommodations are up to the standards that we have set, that the workers have the right to retain their own passports in the way that we have prescribed, that health conditions are maintained and that workers receive the health care that they require, that they are paid appropriately and on schedule and that they are accorded respect.
I view instituting both the statement of values and our approaches to compliance as quite remarkable joint accomplishments of NYU Abu Dhabi and our partners. They model how to create and enforce expectations of fair and humane treatment.
And in fact our labor values and compliance approaches have been hailed as important advances in ensuring the kinds of conditions and the kind of respect employers have the responsibility to provide.
I could add that I think it’s important as we talk about labor in the Gulf to recognize that the UAE, and more broadly the Gulf nations, offer tremendous opportunities for many people. And so our responsibility is to make sure that when they get here, they are treated fairly and humanely. That way we can ensure those workers can achieve what they want for themselves, particularly the chance to make money to send home to their families while gaining those benefits in a context in which their rights are respected and the conditions in which they live are respectful and humane — not to speak of the additional benefit that the large quantities of funds sent home have on their home economies.
I know that construction is close to finishing on Saadiyat, and our campus will soon move out to the new campus. Will this move mean that the employees hired to work for the university will be hired directly under NYUAD?
Throughout the summer the final touches will be put on the campus. That means there will still be construction workers, but not on the scale we’ve had to date. By August most workers on contracts will be those involved in security, facilities maintenance, food services, the bookstore, as opposed to construction. Our workers will still be divided between ones that we employ directly and ones who are employed through contractual relationships governed by our partners. I know commitment to fairness and humanity in labor practices will remain strong on our part and on that of our partners.
The development of our labor standards was, from the start, a joint initiative between the Abu Dhabi Government and representatives of NYU and has been a model of excellent partnership ever since. To start off with, of course there was no presence of NYU in Abu Dhabi, only powerful dreams. Those from NYU who began to develop project, John Sexton and those working with him, worked at NYU. I was hired in New York. But quickly the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Scholars Program was established and the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute began its initial programming. An office was established in Al Bateen, and NYU Abu Dhabi began to take form. Since then, there has been a constant, tight, close-to-24/7 relationship between NYU New York and NYU Abu Dhabi with, for example, Greg [Bruno] talking to colleagues at NYU most recently at 11:30 last night and sending emails through the night. Both NYU New York and NYU Abu Dhabi are, as are our partners, deeply committed to our labor standards.
There are a lot of people watching as to whether we meet these standards. But the reason that we meet them is not because they’re watching, the reason we meet them is, if you want to create a great university, that university has to reach ethical standards across the breadth of its responsibilities, in terms of its responsibilities to the academic program, to its faculty, to its staff, to its students, in the research it conducts and disseminates, in the integrity of the statements it makes, in the fairness of its practices and in terms of how it treats those who work for it. If you’re going to educate ethical leaders for the world, the first thing you have to do is make sure that the university is itself a model of ethical behavior and of ethical treatment of people more particularly. The NYUAD community believes deeply in that responsibility. Students are drawn here in part because of their commitment to building a more ethical world. They would be among the first to notice and object if we deviate from that path.
I wonder if you could speak a little bit about NYU Abu Dhabi in terms of its labor policies, as an exceptional example or as a model.
I do think it’s an exceptional model. NYU Abu Dhabi sees the purpose of intellectual pursuit as lying both in the creation of greater understanding and in the application of that understanding to a better world. And I believe that that dual explicit commitment to both intellectual advance and to placing that advance at the service of a better world is exceptional. It is therefore particularly important that when it comes to labor values we not only develop clearer intellectual models of what is fair and humane but model in our behavior the practice of them.
Our shared statement of labor values, with its commitment to enforce compliance, represented an important statement of institutional responsibility when it was issued in 2010, and I think it’s had significant impact, in fact that it constitutes one of the important accomplishments of NYU Abu Dhabi over the years, achieved in partnership with NYU and our government partners.
There’s been quite a lot of external criticism, particularly a group of professors at NYU in New York, who are quite vocal in expressing issues with labor at NYU Abu Dhabi. I am wondering whether there is any policy or basis for an institutional response to these external sources.
I don’t believe that they are being objective in assessing the extent of contribution that NYU Abu Dhabi has made as both a model of innovation and excellence in educating for a global world and as a model of ensuring more just and humane labor practice. We do respond to that criticism in order to correct its inaccuracies and to articulate the contributions that we’ve made.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 24 print edition. Alistair Blacklock is an editor-in-chief at The Gazelle. Email him at [email protected].