Major Commitment to Protect Migrant Workers from Abuse, but Enforcement and Independent Monitoring Needed
February 3, 2010
"NYU Abu Dhabi's commitments should go a long way toward fixing the major sources of labor abuse.  These provisions set a new minimum standard so that companies will no longer be able to treat worker abuse as a necessary part of doing business in the UAE."
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director

(New York) - New York University's announcement today that it will require all companies to respect the rights of laborers building its campus in the United Arab Emirates is a significant step toward protecting migrant workers there, Human Rights Watch said. All other businesses and institutions with projects in the country, including the Louvre and Guggenheim, should follow suit and incorporate similar contractual safeguards, Human Rights Watch said.

A statement posted today on NYU Abu Dhabi's website said that NYU and its partner, the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi, will require all companies involved in building and operating the NYU Abu Dhabi campus to reimburse workers for any recruiting or other employment-related fees that they are found to have paid. Indebtedness for such fees remains the primary factor in creating conditions of forced labor. The new terms also bar companies from confiscating worker passports, and require them to provide 30 days of annual leave, health insurance, and premium rates for overtime work, among other benefits.

"NYU Abu Dhabi's commitments should go a long way toward fixing the major sources of labor abuse," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. "These provisions set a new minimum standard so that companies will no longer be able to treat worker abuse as a necessary part of doing business in the UAE."

A recent Human Rights Watch report documented a cycle of abuse that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, badly paid, and unable to stand up for their rights or even quit their jobs.

Human Rights Watch said it is concerned, however, about the absence of clear provisions for independent, third-party monitoring of compliance by employers or for enforcement. It is unclear what legal recourse NYU Abu Dhabi has in the event of a breach by a contractor employing workers on its project, with which it will have no direct contractual relationship. Nor is it clear what penalties, if any, will be imposed on contractors that violate the terms. Other shortcomings include the absence of protections for workers to bargain collectively and to strike, and the lack of any guaranteed minimum wage.

"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," Whitson said. "And without clear penalties, such as treble damages and termination of the contract, these requirements will have no teeth."

The announcement from NYU Abu Dhabi comes after months of widespread calls from student groups, faculty, and alumni, to obtain contractual guarantees from its Emirati development partners.

The May 2009 Human Rights Watch report, "‘The Island of Happiness': Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi," documented the severe exploitation and abuse of South Asian migrant workers constructing the infrastructure for the university's permanent campus on Saadiyat Island (the "island of happiness"). In its report, Human Rights Watch called on NYU and other international institutions to insist on concrete contractual commitments from all companies involved in constructing the campus.

Labor conditions in the UAE, including Saadiyat Island, remain a serious problem. Migrant workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in a return visit to the island in January 2010 said, consistent with the earlier findings, that they had paid about $2,000 each in recruitment fees and that their employers had confiscated their passports.

Background
With an inaugural class slated for August, NYU is working hard to recruit students from around the world, with information sessions scheduled over the coming months in various countries, including Peru, Russia, Lebanon, and Costa Rica. Incoming students will initially attend a temporary campus in Abu Dhabi until the university completes construction of its permanent home on Saadiyat Island.

Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, seeks to convert the island into an international tourist destination at a cost of US$27 billion. The low-lying island will have four museums and a performing arts center designed by world-renowned architectural firms - including Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Foster and Partners, and Gehry Partners - as well as the NYU campus, golf courses, hotels, and expensive residences. Other international institutions planning to open branches on the island include the British Museum, the Guggenheim, and the French Museum Agency (responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi).

The Human Rights Watch report was based on interviews with migrant workers and meetings with UAE and French government officials, as well as officers of international institutions and corporations with projects on the island. The report found that the UAE government and the authorities responsible for developing Saadiyat Island have failed to tackle the root causes of worker abuse: unlawful recruiting fees, broken promises of wages, and a sponsorship system that gives an employer virtually complete power over his workers.