Last May, the New York Times reported on the gruesome conditions workers faced while building a campus for New York University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The men, many of them from South Asia, had to pay recruitment fees to get the jobs, which were never paid back; they worked over 60 hours a week; their passports were kept and held by the contractors who hired them; when some organized a strike they were beaten by the police and deported. The article attracted so much attention that it led to an immediate public apology from NYU to the mistreated workers, and in June, the school and a UAE government department assigned investigation firm Nardello & Co. to see what truth there was behind the allegations published in the Times and other media outlets.
The report came out on Thursday, and while it frequently nods to NYU's good intentions and praises the labor guidelines the university and the UAE government adopted in 2009 and 2010, it noted that around a third of the 30,000 workers were exempt from those rules. Nardello also confirmed that employers had held workers' passports in violation of the guidelines and that the vast majority of workers had paid fees of $1,000 to $3,000 to recruiters in their home countries—which is a lot of money considering that many of them earn just over $200 a month.
These sorts of exploitative labor practices, which are widespread on construction projects in the Gulf, have rightly been the target of a lot of criticism. In March 2014, NYU professor Andrew Ross wrote a New York Times op-ed that decried these abuses. "If liberal cultural and educational institutions are to operate with any integrity in that environment," he wrote, "they must insist on a change of the rules: abolish the recruitment debt system, pay a living wage, allow workers to change employers at will and legalize the right to collective bargaining." (Last month, the sociologist was denied entry to the UAE just before embarking on a planned research trip.)
Related: Watch our report on labor practices elsewhere in the UAE:
The problems that developed on the NYU project go far beyond one American university not ensuring that its stated labor guidelines were followed. As the Nardello report points out, the workers on such projects have few opportunities to improve their situation—striking is illegal in the UAE, meaning it's up to institutions like NYU to ensure that laborers aren't abused.
One broader point that Nardello and the harsher critics of construction projects in the Gulf seem to agree upon is that it should be possible to treat the migrant workers who erect lavish buildings with more dignity.
"The UAE is hardly alone in its dependence on tragically underpaid and ill-treated migrant workers. Every developed, and fast-developing, country has its own record of shame," Ross wrote last year in the Times. "But in the Persian Gulf States, the lavish lifestyle of a minority composed of citizens and corporate expats is maintained by a vast majority that functions as a servant class."
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