ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — New York University (NYU) is building what it describes as “the first world-class liberal arts university in the Middle East” in this oil-rich city state, but human rights activists fear it will be doing so with an army of Third World laborers who are earning less than a dollar an hour in conditions of forced labor.
NYU, one of America's elite universities, is not unaware of the harsh labor practices in Abu Dhabi, the wealthiest of the seven semi-autonomous sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates.
Last year, after faculty and students raised questions about Abu Dhabi's human rights record and its treatment of migrant workers, NYU issued a joint statement of “shared values” with the Abu Dhabi government in which it acknowledged the “different legal and cultural environments” in the Middle East, but insisted that local contractors involved in the campus construction project would fully comply with United Arab Emirates labor law.
But critics pointed out that while these laws may exist, they are rarely enforced. So this week NYU unveiled a new set of contractual guidelines for workers involved in the project. These include a provision for at least one day off each week, a guarantee that employers will stop confiscating workers’ passports and that all overtime will be voluntary.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), which last year issued an unflattering report on labor conditions in the Emirates, called the new guidelines a “significant step,” but said it still had concerns.
"Without a contractual agreement between NYU and its Abu Dhabi partner ensuring independent, third-party monitoring of labor conditions, there will be no way to know if employers are complying," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director. "And without clear penalties, such as treble damages and termination of the contract, these requirements will have no teeth."
Andrew Ross, an NYU professor who has been a sharp critic of the Abu Dhabi project, called the new guidelines “promising” but agreed that the university needed to hire independent on-site inspectors to make sure the guidelines are actually enforced.
“If that doesn't happen, then this statement of values will remain just that — words on a page, or a website,” he said.
Josh Taylor, a spokesman for the university, said there would be on-site monitors.
“We are finalizing the arrangements now. They will be in place before construction starts,” he said.
In its report, HRW said that government agencies responsible for the NYU project “have failed to tackle the root causes of worker abuse: unlawful recruiting fees charged to migrant workers, wages below what was promised, and a sponsorship system that gives employers virtually complete power over their workers.”
The United Arab Emirates government dismissed the report, calling it “factually incorrect” and “unbalanced.”
NYU will welcome its first students to a temporary campus in downtown Abu Dhabi this fall. Meanwhile, preliminary work is proceeding on a permanent campus, part of $27 billion project on Saadiyat Island that will include a branch of the Guggenheim Museum and the Louvre as well as golf resorts and deluxe hotels.
The United Arab Emirates is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and the entire cost of NYU’s operation in Abu Dhabi is being picked up by the Abu Dhabi government.
“It’s not a program with a budget” NYU President John Sexton told National Public Radio in an interview last year, acknowledging that NYU has, in effect, been given a blank check by the Abu Dhabi government.
But the legions of laborers recruited from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to build the new Saadiyat Island cultural campus will not benefit from the emirate’s largesse. Even under the new guidelines, they will still be paid only about $0.80 an hour.
According to a detailed report last May based on interviews with dozens of foreign laborers on Saadiyat Island, HRW said that many of the men were recruited with promises of good wages and decent working conditions. In many cases the men paid illegal “fees” of up to $4,000 for the opportunity to work here.
Upon arriving, their passports were confiscated and the wages turned out to be about half what was promised. They were often obliged to work 12 hours a day in summer heat that routinely exceeded 100 degrees. The labor camps where the men live are often overcrowded and unsanitary.
The average annual salary for foreign workers on Saadiyat Island is about $2,575.
“In some cases, workers are effectively working in conditions of forced labor: they were fraudulently lured to work in the U.A.E., had to work in order to pay off debts incurred to obtain their job, cannot flee the country because their employers have confiscated their passports on arrival in the U.A.E. and threatened them with illegal penalties if they quit their jobs,” the report said.
Last August, when some workers in neighboring Dubai attempted to organize a strike to protest against conditions, they were rounded up by police and deported.
A United Arab Emirates foreign ministry spokesman accused HRW of “sensationalizing” the problems and ignoring the progress that has been made.
NYU’s promise to enforce stricter standards comes a few days ahead of scheduled press conference organized by campus activists and HRW to highlight labor practices in the Emirates.
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