Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia (BBN)-Following a report this week about mistreatment of workers who built New York University’s new Abu Dhabi campus, NYU apologised and said it would work with its partner to investigate.
The next day, the partner, the Abu Dhabi government, confirmed it would participate, reports The New York Times.
NYU has declined to specify how such an investigation might proceed, or what remedies it might pursue.
But experts on labour conditions in the region warn that while looking into past abuses is an important first step, preventing further abuses on the campus — which former President Bill Clinton is set to inaugurate on Sunday — will be no small matter, given the laws currently in place.
The New York Times reported that immigrant workers who built the campus said they were charged a year’s wages to land the job; paid less or later than they were promised; denied access to their travel documents; and arrested, beaten and deported for going on strike — all seeming violations of the “statement of labour values” that NYU published in 2009.
About 6,000 workers were hired by local contractors under the system known as kafala, by which labourers are beholden to their employers for visas, and may not return to their home countries or even change jobs without permission.
The university has said it had no direct oversight of the workers’ conditions, and was reliant on contractors and subcontractors, as well as an outside monitor, to see that the labor values were being upheld. T
hose contractors ultimately report to the government of Abu Dhabi, whose royal family paid for the entire campus and contributed at least $50 million to the university.
“Whatever happens, I think NYU has to accept that statements of assurance from their Emirati partners, as they call them, cannot be necessarily taken at face value,” said Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, the international watchdog organisation.
“I think there’s been a degree of credulity in the approach of some of the Western institutions who have gotten in bed with governments who have a proven track record of not upholding workers’ rights and not necessarily acting in good faith when they assure people about reforms.”
He said that for its code of conduct to succeed, NYU would have to use its influence to bring about changes to the kafala system. “But to do that they have to run the risk of upsetting their host,” McGeehan said.
Criticising government policies is a particularly delicate matter in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, where political dissent is punished harshly.
The edition of the International New York Times that contained the article about abuses on the NYU campus did not appear in the United Arab Emirates because the local printer, Khaleej Times, said the material was “too sensitive.”
In its statement saying it would investigate, Tamkeen, the government agency that has been NYU’s local partner, also defended its previous oversight, saying that the “groundbreaking labor standards” that the university established for the campus were “vigorously applied.”
The Clinton Foundation, in a statement, said that it was “disturbed” by the reports of labor conditions, but that Clinton would keep his engagement.
The Guggenheim Museum, whose plans for its own branch in Abu Dhabi have drawn protests from labor activists, declined requests for comment.
Qatar, a neighbor of the UAE, recently proposed changes to the kafala system, in response to questions about how it intended to build for the 2022 World Cup.
Amnesty International dismissed those changes as inconsequential, and called the effort “a missed opportunity.”
Now that construction has ended on NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, John Beckman, the university’s chief spokesman, said most of the workers will be “on contracts that NYU directly oversees.”
But James Lynch, an Amnesty International researcher, said abuses could still occur. He recommended that NYU arrange compensation for mistreated workers, determine why the monitoring system did not detect abuses and establish a hotline where workers can report violations directly to the university.
“Having the standards is one thing, but what you see a lot in the Gulf are bits of paper with values and standards,” Lynch said. “It comes down to results.”