New York University’s new Abu Dhabi campus seems like an intellectual oasis in the United Arab Emirates, festooned with hypermodern architecture and soothing palm-tree gardens. But the luxuriant state-of-the-art complex was built on the sweat of tens of thousands of migrants, shipped in from North Africa and South Asia to labor on the university complex.
The Coalition for Fair Labor (CFL), a group of NYU researchers and labor activists, has for years been examining the treatment of NYU Abu Dhabi’s (NYUAD) migrant workforce, and its extensive new report concludes that for nearly a decade, the institution has systematically exposed workers to extreme risk of abuse and coercion.
The report cites an earlier audit by the compliance-monitoring firm Nardello & Co., which found that the project had repeatedly failed to adhere to international standards. Under the highly restrictive kafala (“sponsorship”) system that oversees migrant labor, contract workers can be denied their due wages, sent home for standing up for their rights, or criminalized for protesting against abuse. Since contractors typically confiscate workers’ passports, workers’ freedom of movement is automatically curbed, exposing them to abuse and fraud. (Similar charges have also haunted the developments of the Guggenheim and Louvre branches in Abu Dhabi.)
The CFL also alleges that NYU has been stonewalling public scrutiny; in one controversial incident in 2014, NYU professor Andrew Ross was barred from flying to the UAE, in an apparent attempt to thwart his field research.
One of the chief violations typically happens before migrants even reach the UAE: Recruitment agents perniciously broker jobs in workers’ home countries (primarily, India, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines) to secure huge fees in exchange for arranging a job overseas. According to the CFL, “Likely all or the vast majority of the 30,000 construction workers at NYUAD paid recruitment costs and fees.”
As an indentured workforce, the migrants have virtually no legal recourse against violations, the CFL argues, rendering them extremely vulnerable to violations like wage theft or excessive work hours. They also lack basic protections from occupational injury (a frighteningly routine occurrence on Gulf construction sites, though NYU previously boasted of a relatively low injury rate compared to other regional projects).