Drawn by the promise of jobs, thousands of men from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal are working on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates.

© 2010 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – New York University (NYU)’s pledge to compensate migrant construction workers for its Abu Dhabi campus who were excluded from a code of conduct designed to protect them is a positive step. The NYU president, John Sexton, announced the commitment on April 16, 2015, after a report commissioned by the Abu Dhabi government revealed the existence of a policy that excluded 30 to 35 percent of the workers from the guidelines and compliance monitoring requirements in a code of conduct covering migrant workers.  

The report by Nardello & Co., an international investigations firm, concluded that NYU’s commitment to workers was “real, implemented in good faith, and to a large measure effective” but that the implementation of the code of conduct was “flawed.” NYU announced that it will compensate workers who were excluded from the code of conduct and that it will act on other Nardello recommendations “where feasible.” These recommendations include public disclosure of financial penalties for violations of the code, prohibiting employers from confiscating workers’ passports, and steps to end involuntary overtime. NYU also announced that it will research the recruitment fees workers pay to get the jobs.

“NYU deserves credit for pledging to act on the findings and recommendations of the Nardello report,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “The Nardello findings are further evidence of the serious rights violations that accompanied the NYU Abu Dhabi project.”

In February 2015, Human Rights Watch issued its third report about rights violations on Saadiyat Island, a high-profile project that will host branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums as well as the NYU campus. Human Rights Watch found that some employers on Saadiyat Island, including contractors on the NYU site, were withholding migrant workers’ wages and benefits, failing to reimburse them for recruiting fees, confiscating workers’ passports, and housing workers in substandard accommodations.

In the most serious cases, contractors working for the two government development entities on the NYU and Louvre sites apparently informed United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities about worker strikes, leading to the arbitrary deportation of several hundred striking workers.

In May 2014, the New York Times reported on one of those mass deportations, which involved a major contractor on the NYU Abu Dhabi project. The following month, NYU’s Emirati partner, the Abu Dhabi government, appointed Nardello to review the media allegations, although the Nardello report also reviews findings by Human Rights Watch and Gulf Labor, a coalition of international artists working to ensure protection of workers’ rights on Saadiyat Island.

Nardello said it reviewed “thousands of documents” and interviewed “approximately” 340 workers from the NYU campus “in non-threatening private settings free from the presence of their employers or other workers” as well as representatives of contractors, compliance monitors, Abu Dhabi government agencies, faculty and students of NYU, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations. However, several unnamed key parties did not give Nardello access to all requested documents and personnel, it said, and Nardello noted that the records of the key parties “did not capture all the details of their compliance-related activities” and that “certain potentially relevant records were missing or incomplete.”

Nardello concluded that the most significant problem did not relate to poor enforcement of the labor guidelines, but rather the exclusion of thousands of workers from their scope. In 2010, the Abu Dhabi government developer, Mubadala, in conjunction with the main contractor, AF Carillion, and the project manager, EC Harris, agreed that subcontractors working on site for less than 31 days and with contracts worth less than US$1 million would not be obligated to comply with the guidelines. Nardello estimated that this decision led to the exclusion of 30 to 35 percent of approximately 30,000 workers on the NYU Abu Dhabi project from the labor guidelines and compliance monitoring.

Nardello asserted that the issues behind the strike that led to the deportation of more than 200 employees of BK Gulf, a major contractor on the NYU site, “were significantly more complex than portrayed” in “the media and NGO reports.” It found that dissatisfaction with pay on the NYU campus was not a cause of the strike, but noted that the higher pay on the NYU project contributed to pay discrepancies among the BK Gulf workforce and that these discrepancies were at the root of the four contributing factors for the strike that it cites.

Nardello pointed out in a footnote that “several workers confirmed the reports that the police broke into their rooms, and also reported being slapped, beaten, or tasered by the police.” Nardello said they “were not able to determine” why 75 percent of deported workers were working on the NYU campus at the time of the strike and that without more information on the reason for the worker dismissals it was not possible to say if the dismissals constituted a violation of the labor guidelines.

Nardello’s account of the strike is consistent with Human Rights Watch findings that the strike was linked to low wages and pay discrepancies between new workers and old workers. Human Rights Watch also found that the authorities had mistreated several workers, and that arrests and deportations had been conducted in an arbitrary manner.

In its findings on the mistreatment of striking workers, Nardello recommended establishing mechanisms and procedures to maximize workers’ ability to voice their grievances without fear of retribution. While it made no specific recommendation in relation to the 200 deported BK Gulf workers, NYU should consider extending its compensation program to them in keeping with its stated commitment to protect the rights of the men and women involved in the construction and operation of its campus.

Nardello found that contractors were not adhering to the agreed labor guidelines provision on workers’ passports, which clearly stated that “employees will retain their own personal documents.” Rather, contractors were adhering to a non-public set of guidelines, called “supplementary specifications,” which “did not contain any provision that affirmatively required that workers retain their passports.” Nardello recommended that workers “should control their own passports with access to fireproof and accessible lock boxes.”

Nardello also recommended establishing and enforcing strict penalties, which should be made public, for violations; appointing one compliance monitor with “no other economic ties to a project”; and establishing escrow accounts under the compliance monitor’s control to address late or non-payment of wages, involuntary overtime, and sub-standard housing. Nardello also recommended the use of contractors that are “taking measures to mitigate abuses in the recruitment process.”

“The Nardello report underscores the serious challenges that institutions committed to upholding labor standards face in setting up shop in a country such as the UAE, that has a highly exploitative construction industry,” Whitson said. “Protecting workers’ rights in the Gulf requires a comprehensive and sustained commitment.”