SLAM Protests NYU’s Past Fair Labor Violations at NYUAD

At an NYU Abu Dhabi Institute screening of a documentary about the UAE, protesters from the Student Labor Action Movement demanded the university compensate underpaid and unpaid NYUAD construction workers.


SLAM protestors outside of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute protesting the violations of labor rights during the construction of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus (Photo by Ronni Husmann).

Ronni Husmann, Deputy News Editor

Chants of “F-ck forced labor! Pay them back!” echoed through Washington Square Park on Monday evening as student activists protested the treatment of workers whose rights were violated under NYU’s labor guidelines while building the NYU Abu Dhabi campus in 2010.

Prompted by the screening of “History of the Emirates: Taming the Desert” — the first episode in a three-part documentary series by National Geographic about the history of the United Arab Emirates — about 10 students from the Student Labor Action Movement stood outside of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on Washington Square North, handing out fliers to passersby and chanting phrases such as, “10 years too late! Your workers can’t wait!” 

Flyers read, “We Won’t Pay For Forced Labor. NYU knowingly used forced labor to build NYUAD. 10 years later and no apology.”

NYU began construction of its global site in Abu Dhabi in 2010. In 2015, it was reported by the law firm Nardello & Co. that almost one-third of NYUAD workers were living in poor housing conditions, were receiving late or no pay and had not been reimbursed for their recruitment fees. This treatment violated NYU’s labor guidelines and the university accepted responsibility, saying they were committed to changing workers’ conditions.

On the Facebook page for the event, SLAM said the protest was meant to send a message to  Abdalla Shaheen, the Consul General of the UAE in New York, who attended the UAE Institute screening. 

[E]nd forced labor by rectifying fair labor codes to be in compliance, and go beyond a good faith effort to actually, materially compensate the laborers who were exploited to build the campus 10 years ago,” the description of the event reads.

SLAM also called out Tamkeen, a UAE government agency that is one of NYU’s partners on the Abu Dhabi campus and gave almost $3 million in the form of contracts in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Protesters chanted “Just say no to Tamkeen’s lies, give labor rights to organize.”

In addition to other claims against NYU, organizers read a statement accusing the university of withholding workers’ passports, not repaying mandatory recruitment fees and, consequently, leaving workers with large amounts of debt.

They also shared NYU Abu Dhabi workers’ testimonies from a 2018 Impactt report

“Workers are made to feel as though they are in the wrong every time they approach HR personnel,” a 2016 NYUAD worker wrote in the report and organizers read at the protest. 

SLAM protesters also said that current NYUAD workers are still not being treated fairly.

“While NYU students afford a subsidized education at NYUAD, workers on their campus continue to face fair labor violations and forced labor conditions,” one SLAM organizer read. 

A few passersby stopped and joined the chorus while the students continued to chant, read statements and hand out fliers. 

SLAM members declined to comment for this article.

Email Ronni Husmann at [email protected].