Independent investigative firm Nardello & Co. released a report last week in response to allegations of labor violations at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus dating to last December. The report revealed that approximately one-third of the migrant construction workers employed — some 10,000 people — were excluded from the protections of NYU’s labor standards. In a universitywide email, NYU President John Sexton acknowledged the lapses, citing a de facto policy unknown to the NYU administration that allowed exemptions to NYU’s labor standards for certain contractors. Sexton’s admission is a positive development, but the alarming report after a nearly year-long investigation demonstrates the need for increased monitoring of labor standards abroad.
It remains unclear what control NYU has over contractors and workers at other campuses, particularly those that also have histories of human rights violations. Sexton’s explanation for the Abu Dhabi violations hinged on the fact that the administration was unaware of them. This demonstrates a worrying breakdown between the university and its contractors, and is especially concerning in light of recent reports concerning labor protection issues at NYU Shanghai. NYU plans to implement many of the recommendations made in the Nardello report, but it must also step up its monitoring of conditions at these other sites. Lofty rhetoric about the pursuit of academic excellence is meaningless if basic human rights are trampled in the process.
Sexton’s statement that “NYU cannot dictate a nation’s labor laws” negates his support of the right of workers to air complaints. Despite the standards set by Sexton in the email and in the larger policies of the university, the transgressions will continue to occur if NYU takes this hands-off approach. The administration should take a nation’s labor practices into consideration before committing to a multimillion-dollar expansion there.
All this comes back to the fact that the United Arab Emirates is not known for protecting the ideals of free speech and human rights. Reports of press censorship and abductions are rampant. Because the Abu Dhabi government finances NYUAD, questions about academic independence emerge. After the UAE denied professor Andrew Ross entry, it is clear that NYU is unable to exercise full control over university affairs.
It is encouraging that Sexton is taking responsibility for these labor violations, especially given that NYU 2031 was his initiative. However, it has been almost a full year since details of labor abuses on Saadiyat Island emerged in The New York Times. Each time Sexton sidesteps criticism by pointing to the fact that the Abu Dhabi campus is a “major innovation” in the idea of a modern university, it becomes harder to believe that the university is committed to people over prestige.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 20 edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]