Still no real protections for workers at NYU Abu Dhabi

In February 2010, NYU released a new set of labor standards for its contractors on Saadiyat Island.  In its statement, NYU pledged its commitment to specific worker rights at its Abu Dhabi campus. While this is a positive step, it is simply not enough. NYU’s labor standards do not ensure workers’ internationally recognized rights to collective bargaining and to strike, nor do the standards guarantee a minimum wage.  Significant concerns also remain about implementation and enforcement of these commitments, and the need for a credible, independent, and transparent monitoring mechanism and other contractual guarantees to ensure employers’ compliance with human rights standards.  Unless a monitor is empowered to make random visits to work sites and maintain a relationship independent of employer influence, violations will persist and continue to be under-reported. Similarly, without explicit mechanisms for enforcing the terms of the contract or clearly enumerated remedies in the event of breaches, all efforts to protect workers will be in vain.

Shortly after NYU’s release, HRW commented on the university’s statement: “[HRW] is concerned, however, about the absence of clear provisions for independent, third-party monitoring of compliance by employers or for enforcement. It is unclear what legal recourse NYU Abu Dhabi has in the event of a breach by a contractor employing workers on its project, with which it will have no direct contractual relationship. Nor is it clear what penalties, if any, will be imposed on contractors that violate the terms. Other shortcomings include the absence of protections for workers to bargain collectively and to strike, and the lack of any guaranteed minimum wage.” Subsequent to its comments, Human Rights Watch confirmed that its concerns about these gaps remain unchanged.

Violations of worker rights are routine on Saadiyat Island where the Abu Dhabi campus will be constructed. Last year, Human Rights Watch documented a cycle of abuse there that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, poorly paid, and unable to defend their rights or even quit their jobs. The UAE authorities responsible for developing the island have failed to tackle the root causes of abuse: unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages, and a sponsorship system that gives employers virtually complete power over workers.

With the downtown NYU Abu Dhabi campus nearly complete and construction on Saadiyat Island slated to begin this summer, we believe that the window of opportunity for the university to lead by example is closing quickly. Moreover, we believe that this is an issue on which a few simple steps can make a substantial difference. NYU can: insist that its Abu Dhabi partners legally require all contractors working on the campus to respect human rights; establish an independent monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance; and report publicly on implementation of its commitments.

We understand that efforts to design a monitoring mechanism are already underway and that a decision regarding the selection of an external monitor may be taken very soon. While we commend the University for its commitment to establish a compliance mechanism before construction begins on Saadiyat Island, we are concerned that the lack of transparency surrounding the design of the monitoring system and the selection criteria for an independent monitor will compromise effectiveness and credibility. Furthermore, developing an enforcement mechanism behind closed doors forecloses opportunities for NYU to tap expertise in the university community. We urge NYU disclose the principles according to which a monitor will be selected and the scope of that monitor’s responsibilities, and commit to public, transparent reporting on compliance. The enforceable protection of human rights will in turn protect the name and reputation of NYU.

Who are we? We are a group of NYU students and faculty who are deeply committed to ensuring that the university continues to enjoy a reputation for academic excellence and democratic values befitting a global private university in the public service. We continue to have serious concerns about the protection of human rights in the construction and operation of NYU’s new Abu Dhabi campus.

We all have a stake in maintaining NYU’s reputation as a leading educational institution. We are concerned that a human rights scandal at NYU Abu Dhabi could prove detrimental to the university’s name and are committed to doing everything in our power to prevent any reputational damage. As media attention to human rights violations in Abu Dhabi continues, we urge the NYU administration to ensure the protection of human rights and the responsible use of NYU’s name.


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