Workers Say NYU Flunked on Good Labor Practices While Building Abu Dhabi Campus

They were paid half of what they expected to get and slept packed in rooms like sardines.

This July 15, 2008, photo depicts typical living conditions for migrant workers on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Workers live and work without adequate rights in difficult conditions in labor camps. Twelve to 20 men often share a small room. Exploitation of hundreds of thousands of underpaid migrant workers, from countries such as India and Pakistan, helps fuel the economic boom in construction and tourism in the small, oil-rich Gulf states. (Photo: Ghaith Abdul Ahad/Getty Images)

May 19, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

Before New York University broke ground on a huge new campus in Abu Dhabi, the school made promises that the laborers who built it would be treated fairly and paid well—bringing a semblance of American labor rights to the Middle East–based academic outpost.

Despite issuing a detailed "statement of labor values" in 2010 that included provisions banning labor by anyone under 15 and mandating equal pay for male and female workers, reports abound that abusive contractors have underpaid workers and held their passports hostage, according to a probing front page story from The New York Times.

In interviews with the Times, workers reported working six or seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day, to earn close to what they had been promised before signing on to the work.

Their living accommodations were squalid: Typically, a dozen men shared a 200-square-foot room with a herd of cockroaches. They slept on thin mattresses in triple bunks, with little privacy or comfort.

What's worse, they were promised $408 a month—which might buy you a week's rent in an NYU dorm—but were paid much less. One worker reported being able to earn $272 with overtime.

NYU officials haven't taken much responsibility for the conditions. The Times reports:

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.

So, they promised but then handed off responsibility to local contractors who abided by local norms—which aren't great.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich Persian Gulf nation about the size of Austria, and labor violations there are not unusual—and neither are the vast edifices of wealth that are cropping up as leaders work to make the city a cultural destination.

NYU's campus is opening up on an island northeast of the city's downtown, called Saadiyat Island, a name that means "happiness" in Arabic.

In a sense, NYU's biggest crime here may be that when it promised to care about workers' rights, it promised to be different from everyone else that operates in the UAE.

Plenty of companies are perfectly content with abiding by the terrible standards the UAE allows.

Not far from the NYU campus, outposts for the Louvre and the Guggenheim are in the works.