Labor in Abu Dhabi 101: A Cross-Campus Teach-In

On December 6, 2014, the Coalition for Fair Labor hosted the first cross-campus teach-in on labor conditions in the United Arab Emirates. Speakers included:

Kristina Bogos, Coalition for Fair Labor
Jess Champagne, Workers Rights Consortium
Arang Keshavarzian, Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies, NYU
Martin Klimke, History, NYU Abu Dhabi
Erum Raza, Compliance and Risk Management, NYU Abu Dhabi
Kimberly Rodriguez, ADvocacy, NYU Abu Dhabi
Andrew Ross, SCA/Coalition for Fair Labor, NYU
Justin Stearns, Arab Crossroads, NYU Abu Dhabi

For topics discussed, please see our notes from the teach-in.

We thank our co-sponsors for their support: American Association of University Professors (AAUP); Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU; Center for Media, Culture and History at NYU; Department of History, NYU; Department of Anthropology, NYU; Department of English, NYU; Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, NYU; South Asia at NYU

Additional steps need to be taken at NYUAD

After the release of our petition in early May asking NYU and NYU Abu Dhabi to be proactive about human rights and fair labor standards on Saadiyat Island, the Coalition for Fair Labor received the following response from the NYU administration:

Sexton Bloom reply

The Coalition for Fair Labor is urging NYU to take further steps to resolve our community’s concerns for the rights and conditions of migrant workers in the UAE, with specific regard to the university’s independent monitoring arrangements and development of cross-campus research initiatives. Our response:

CFL Response June 11


Gulf Labor documents violations of NYUAD labor standards

A new report from Gulf Labor, a coalition of artists working to protect the rights of migrant workers on Saadiyat Island, reveals violations of workers’ rights within the NYU Abu Dhabi project.

During a trip to labor camps in the UAE between Mar. 14 and Mar. 21, Gulf Labor interviewed groups of workers building NYUAD’s new campus on Saadiyat Island and documented the following violations of NYU’s Statement of Labor Values and UAE labor law:

Gulf Labor: No worker was in possession of his passport.
NYU Statement of Labor Values: Employees will retain all of their own personal documents, including passports and drivers’ licenses.

GL: Overtime (amounting to 11- or 12-hour work days, and sometimes longer) was described as mandatory, not voluntary.
NYU: Employees will work no more than eight hours a day, five days a week, except for those working in construction-related activities, who will work no more than eight hours a day, six days a week. Overtime will only be worked voluntarily, and will be compensated at premium rates.

GL: Sub-contractors (such as Robodh and Al Reyami) had failed to pay wages in a timely fashion, and were in arrears by several months. 
NYU: Employees shall receive their full wages or basic salary via electronic bank transfers and on a pre-agreed upon schedule.

GL: Employers had not paid recruitment fees.
NYU: Employers will fully cover or reimburse employees for fees associated with the recruitment process, including those relating to visas, medical examinations, and the use of recruitment agencies, without deductions being imposed on their remuneration.

GL: Many of the employees engaged in work stoppages (a four-hour strike by Al Reyami workers in June, and a larger two-day strike in August by BK Gulf workers housed in Yas Island and Jebel Ali) were terminated and deported without any due process.
NYU: No worker shall be subject to harassment, intimidation, or retaliation in their efforts to resolve work disputes.

GL: Some workers did not have a written contract regarding hours and wages.
Article 36 of UAE labor law: The employment contract shall in particular specify the date of its conclusion, the date on which work begins, nature and place of work, duration of the contract in the case of contract with limited period and the amount of the remuneration.

Gulf Labor also found the following:

1. While food allowances had been slightly increased in response to the August strike, subcontractors’ additional promises of salary increases had not been kept.
2. Some workers were housed in substandard camps, and some had endured long work commutes (up to three hours).
3. In Mussafah, an area of Abu Dhabi which hosts many labor camps, employees who had worked on NYU’s Saadiyat campus cited figures as low as 572 AED a month.
4. Every worker we met in the SAV and at off-island sites had paid recruitment fees to come to the UAE. Bangladeshi workers on the NYUAD sites reported paying between 1 lakh 20 thousand, and 3 lakhs in fees (1545 USD to 3864 USD).
5. According to an off-island interview with two Nepalese workers who had worked on NYUAD, three or four out of 10 workers lose their land as they are unable to pay the debt back in time.

NYU released a set of labor values in February of 2010 after the Coalition for Fair Labor urged NYU to adopt fair labor practices. In October of 2010, NYUAD and Tamkeen, a government entity in Abu Dhabi, appointed the firm Mott MacDonald as the independent auditor for the NYUAD construction project. However, Mott MacDonald has ties to Saadiyat Island. In 2006, the firm was appointed to oversee the development of Saadiyat Island’s entire power and water distribution systems. This relationship is a clear conflict of interest and is resulting in compliance reports from NYU that are not comprehensive. NYU’s very own compliance reports from 2011, 2012 and 2013, the latter released two days ago, have consistently claimed that the NYUAD project is taking workers’ rights seriously. While violations are being documented from organizations like Human Rights Watch and Gulf Labor, NYU’s name is being tarnished for letting instances of exploitation go unnoticed.

Comparing NYU’s Statement and the Fair Labor Code of Conduct

In response to calls from the CFL and others, NYU finally announced a new set of labor standards in February 2010. Unfortunately, NYU’s standards are woefully inadequate to ensure basic protections for the workers who will be constructing our new campus. Most notably, there is no commitment to a guaranteed minimum wage and no protection for the fundamental internationally-recognized right to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Click below for a chart detailing NYU’s shortcomings by comparing the recent statement to the Fair Labor Code of Conduct proposed by the CFL in 2008.

NYU-CFL comparison chart 3-26.10

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.