Risk of Forced Labor at Abu Dhabi Remains, Contradicting NYU

The NYU Abu Dhabi campus. Courtesy NYUAD.

Three years after promising to provide regular updates on adherence to labor standards on the Abu Dhabi campus, NYU released its compliance report in May amid mounting protests from activists and human rights groups.

NYU made that promise after making national headlines when a 2015 investigation found nearly one-third of migrant construction workers on the NYUAD campus had been excluded from the protections of NYU’s labor guidelines. The findings, reported by the law firm Nardello & Co., listed issues such as poor housing conditions and late or non-existent pay, among others. The university took full responsibility and promised to change.

Conducted by Impactt Limited — an ethical-trade consultancy hired by NYU — the 30-page report audited more than 500 NYUAD campus workers, from December 2015 to March 2017. The results listed a high level of satisfaction among work- ers during the first year, yet also found 87 instances of non-compliance with labor values set by NYU prior to the beginning of construction. Throughout the next two years, however, Impactt found that nearly 77 of the 87 problems had been resolved.

Despite the results gathered by Impactt, numerous other documentations of the laborers’ conditions at NYUAD have surfaced over the years, painting a different picture of the realities faced by workers abroad. One such example was a 2014 report by The New York Times that explicitly outlined the exploitative conditions faced by laborers that violated the guidelines NYU set for itself prior to the construction of the campus (the “statement of labor values” has since been removed from NYUAD’s website).

Additionally, last May, NYU’s Coalition for Fair Labor — a student-faculty alliance created in the wake of NYUAD’s construction released its own 129-page report titled “Forced Labor at NYU Abu Dhabi; Compliance and the Cosmopolitan University.” The Coalition found many breaches in the standards set by NYU, including involuntary overtime, high recruitment costs and fees, holding of workers passports by their employers, lack of full wages and threatening workers who striked with deportation.

Executive Director of Public Affairs and Communications Kate Chandler emphasized in a statement released, following the compliance report that the Coalition’s investigation was inaccurate, but did not name specific discrepancies. Chandler cited the Impactt report as evidence for the claim.

“We believe the Coalition for Fair Labor’s assessment is neither right nor fair, and we find the title to be both incorrect and inflammatory,” read the statement. “More broadly, we disagree with the report’s findings, which are not based on primary evidence.”

Sahiba Gill, a 2018 graduate from NYU Law and the primary author of the report, said that the compliance report released by Impactt and NYUAD actually confirmed the Coalition’s initial report. The Coalition released a statement shortly after the NYUAD report, stating that Impactt failed to audit specifically for forced labor, judged by standards that still created a critical risk of forced labor and did not accurately represent the workers in its sampling method.

“NYU Abu Dhabi has released a report with manifest deficiencies on priority areas critical to mitigating the risk of forced labor at NYU Abu Dhabi,” the statement reads. “That NYU Abu Dhabi would argue such a report rebuts concern about its compliance program demonstrates its judgment on this issue and its present unaccountability to the university’s commitment to compliance with laws and ethical treatment.”

Gill went on to reiterate that NYU was making clear improvements but lacked a fundamental understanding of how to deal with problems of infrastructure in another country.

“As we show in the report, NYU clearly made mistakes that just never should have happened in the first place, and that were readily avoidable if NYU had committed to compliance and to ensuring they took reasonable steps to prevent forced labor,” Gill said in a statement to WSN. “So far as we understand, again from what is availably [sic] known, NYU doesn’t have independent means to enforce its own independent governance requirements.”

NYU Social and Cultural Analysis Professor and member of the Coalition, Andrew Ross, who was barred from entering the United Arab Emirates in 2015, echoed this sentiment.

“The Coalition felt that NYU didn’t understand the risks that were involved with going into a location where labor rights and human rights abuses were widespread,” he said. “Such as the loss of academic freedom, forced labor and an inability to manage a campus in a different culture and country.”

Ultimately, Ross said the issue was a moral one.

“Students shouldn’t be asked to study in classrooms that have been built on the back of abused workers and faculty should not be asked to teach in them,” Ross said.

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 26 print edition. Email Kristina Hayhurst at [email protected]

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