Workers at N.Y.U.’s Abu Dhabi Site Faced Harsh Conditions

Ariel Kaminer and Sean O’Driscoll, Workers at N.Y.U.’s Abu Dhabi Site Faced Harsh Conditions. The New York Times, 18 May 2014. “Facing criticism for venturing into a country where dissent is not tolerated and labor can resemble indentured servitude, N.Y.U. in 2009 issued a “statement of labor values” that it said would guarantee fair treatment of workers. But interviews by The New York Times with dozens of workers who built N.Y.U.’s recently completed campus found that conditions on the project were often starkly different from the ideal.

Virtually every one said he had to pay recruitment fees of up to a year’s wages to get his job and had never been reimbursed. N.Y.U.’s list of labor values said that contractors are supposed to pay back all such fees. Most of the men described having to work 11 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, just to earn close to what they had originally been promised, despite a provision in the labor statement that overtime should be voluntary.

Excerpts from story:

The men said they were not allowed to hold onto their passports, in spite of promises to the contrary. And the experiences of the BK Gulf strikers, a half dozen of whom were reached by The Times in their home countries, stand in contrast to the standard that all workers should have the right to redress labor disputes without “harassment, intimidation, or retaliation.”

Some men lived in squalor, 15 men to a room. The university said there should be no more than four….

N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi is a bold undertaking, matching the ambitions of one of the world’s wealthiest nations with those of America’s largest private university. It is also one of the most closely watched of a growing number of experiments in academic globalization. N.Y.U.’s president, John Sexton, has called the outpost, an entire degree-granting institution, “an opportunity to transform the university and, frankly, the world.

But Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is an unlikely setting for a university built on the American model. Academic freedom is unheard-of, criticizing government is a crime and an employment system known as kafala leaves millions of immigrant workers tethered to the companies that sponsor their visas….

Told of the laborers’ complaints, officials said they could not vouch for the treatment of individual construction workers, since they are not employees of the university but rather of companies that work as contractors or subcontractors for the government agency overseeing the project. Those companies are contractually obligated to follow the statement of labor values….

Inside City Falcon’s [a construction company] squalid quarters, the bedrooms are so crowded that the men must sleep three to a stack — one on the upper bunk, one on the lower bunk and one below the lower bunk, separated from the floor by only a thin pad for a mattress. In the space between the beds, the men pile cauliflower, onions and 75-pound sacks of Basmati rice to cook after working all day and washing the construction dirt from their clothes. Tangles of exposed wiring hang down from the ceiling, and cockroaches climb the walls.

In the smaller of the two rooms in this apartment, where the only window is covered over, more than a dozen men share a space of barely 200 square feet. They drape towels down from the bed above them to eke out a tiny realm of privacy.

The men who live there, like millions of other South Asian laborers in Abu Dhabi, came for one reason: to earn money for their families back home. One City Falcon employee, a soft-spoken man with a boyish face, is helping support five brothers. Another supports four children, ages 6 to 14. Others have toddlers they have never met….

Almost all of the several dozen workers interviewed, working for a variety of companies and living at a half-dozen labor camps, said that a recruiter back home charged them about a year’s wages to land them the jobs. (Recruitment fees are widespread in the U.A.E., despite being officially illegal; Human Rights Watch calls them “the single greatest factor in creating conditions of forced labor.”)

The City Falcon workers, like all the men interviewed, said they were not allowed to keep their own passports. A group of laborers in a nearby apartment who had recently finished installing furniture on the Saadiyat Island campus said they were not even allowed to hold their own bank cards. To get cash they have to ask the man they called the “owner”: the recruiter who brought them over from Bangladesh, who sleeps in the room with them….

By laying out its standards for labor in a country with no tradition of workers’ rights, N.Y.U. took on a considerable challenge — one that many companies in the region are content to ignore. Sustaining the academic freedom that is a core value of its New York campus will pose a similar challenge. In both cases, the challenge is made more complex by the fact that the university is in effect a guest of the ruling family, which has not only paid for the 21-building campus and for generous tuition subsidies, but also has contributed the first of what are expected to be several $50 million donations to N.Y.U. as a whole.

In recent years, the United Arab Emirates, which has been accused of torturing political prisoners, has intensified its crackdown on dissent. And though neighboring Qatar, which is preparing for the 2022 World Cup, recently announced reforms to the kafala system, in U.A.E. it remains firmly in place.

Additional coverage:

Glenn Carrick in Abu Dhabi and David Batty, In Abu Dhabi, they call it Happiness Island. But for the migrant workers, it is a place of misery. The Guardian, 21 December 2013. “Off the coast of Abu Dhabi, a stretch of sand is being turned into a cultural hub of global renown, featuring a new Louvre, Guggenheim and New York University. But the migrant workers creating it are being paid a pittance and living in squalor…. It is one of the world’s largest construction projects – to turn a desert island, known only for its turtles and soft sand dunes, into the greatest intellectual and cultural powerhouse of the Middle East. Saadiyat Island (“Happiness Island” in Arabic), a once uninhabited stretch of coastal desert close to Abu Dhabi’s city centre, is steadily being converted by tens of thousands of migrant workers into a $27bn (£16.5bn) cultural metropolis. The centrepieces will be a New York University campus, a $1.3bn Jean Nouvel-designed Abu Dhabi Louvre and the Frank Geary-designed Guggenheim. Close by, the British Museum is chief partner on the Zayed National Museum, created by Norman Foster. Along with 600,000-year-old cave art and abstract expressionism, the National Museum will include glass cases of memorabilia dedicated to the founder of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed al-Nahyan. Already, the growing hub is surrounded by five-star hotels and hundreds of luxury villa and apartments. But amid the splendour, opulence and massive investment, there is a dark side to life on Happiness Island, particularly if you are unlucky enough to be one of the foreign legions of migrant workers charged with building the dream. In a three-month investigation, the Observer has uncovered evidence of intimidation, strike-breaking, mass riots and an employment system trapping thousands of labourers on poverty pay….

Excerpts from story:

[T]o encounter this alternative reality, one needs only to travel 20 miles from Saadiyat village, along sandy desert roads, to the most remote corner of the Mafraq industrial area, the location of Al Jaber Construction’s Worker City No. 1. Here, workers are surrounded not by landscaped gardens, but by a trail of rubbish trucks snaking their way around the camp to the city tip next door. Next to the tip, on top of a hill, sits the city’s sewage treatment plant, where lorries dump raw human faeces, the stench of which wafts down to the camp on the warm evening air. At the back of the camp is a large stretch of desert wasteland, where workers cut up raw meat and fish surrounded by piles of rubbish, stepping on shaky planks of wood to avoid the streams of polluted water running down from a nearby industrial reservoir….

Living conditions for migrant workers elsewhere can be even worse. The Observer followed one bus coming out of the New York University construction site, the only non-TDIC [Tourism Development and Investment Company] project on Saadiyat. It led to a filthy, overcrowded camp housing 43 Bangladeshi workers at the heart of the polluted, industrial Musaffah area, next to car repair and welding businesses. There the men, hired to paint the campus, complained of being trapped by recruitment fees that exceeded a year’s salary and of the high cost of even the most basic healthcare. Some, hired from myriad unregulated subcontractors, had to pay for their own work clothes on a salary of £149 a month.

The men were crammed nine or 10 to a windowless room measuring 13 x 14 ft, and had to put up a sheet over the corridor toilet for privacy. All said they hated the camp and had been tricked by their recruiters. One man said: “Look how we live. We are no better than animals. That is all we are to them. Sheep that are to be sold, and nobody in the world is listening.”

Human Rights Watch, Migrant Workers’ Rights on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates. The third Human Rights Watch report on migrant worker abuses on the Saadiyat Island site. 10 February 2015.