An independent investigation into the construction of New York University’s (NYU) Abu Dhabi campus has found that despite the school’s best intentions and efforts, about one third of the workforce at the site — roughly 10,000 workers — was not covered by the school’s labor guidelines, and thus faced unfair and exploitative practices.
The investigation was commissioned by NYU and Tamkeen, an Abu Dhabi government agency that NYU calls its “local partner,” in the wake of a string of reports alleging labor violations on Saadiyat Island, where NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) is located along with future outposts of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums. A front-page New York Times story from last May focused specifically on labor conditions for NYUAD and was received by the school with some surprise.
To compile this latest report, investigations firm Nardello & Co. conducted interviews and site visits and combed through “thousands of documents.” The firm’s job was made harder by the fact that construction on NYUAD’s main campus is largely finished and the laborers who worked on it mostly moved on to other jobs. Nonetheless, many of its findings are in line with previous allegations of insufficient compliance monitoring, the payment by workers — and lack of reimbursement by employers — of recruitment fees, the withholding of workers’ passports, and the practice of involuntary overtime.
Arguably the key finding of the report is Nardello & Co.’s breakdown of why these violations happened despite NYU’s stated commitment to higher standards in a country known for harsh working conditions, along with its publication of two documents announcing its labor guidelines. Nardello writes that NYU’s goals were “admirable” and its efforts “unprecedented in the region,” but “the single most significant problem was not one of enforcement of the Labor Guidelines, but rather the exclusion of thousands of workers from the protections afforded by these guidelines” (emphasis theirs). In what the report terms a “de facto exemption policy,” three of the key involved parties — but not NYU —
agreed that only those subcontractors working on-site for longer than a period of 31 cumulative days, but with less than 30 days between each separate visit, and where the subcontract package value exceeded AED 3.67 million (USD 1 million), would be obligated to comply with Labor Guidelines.
This not only left the door open for many subcontractors to avoid compliance, but also provided an incentive for them to break up labor terms in order to remain exempt (and thus spend less money).
Nardello also found that a number of the key parties involved — again, not NYU — interpreted the mandate of reimbursing recruitment fees as applying only to fees paid “specifically to work on the Main Campus project; and … only in cases where workers could provide proof of payment.” Neither of these conditions applied to the vast majority of laborers, so they were not reimbursed.
Indeed, the problem of too many parties left to interpret unspecific or confusing guidelines — “the slipperiness of the structure of intermediaries … with each party effectively diffusing responsibility to the next,” as Mostafa Heddaya once summed it up on Hyperallergic — is a theme that recurs throughout the report. In one case, that of the holding of workers’ passports, NYU’s two labor documents actually offer conflicting language: one “prohibited employers from holding workers’ passports,” while the other “prohibited employers only from confiscating or restricting access to the documents.” The monitors apparently adhered to the latter and thus did not count the holding of passports as a violation.
Nardello’s 72-page report ends with a series of recommendations, among them the elimination of any exemptions from the labor guidelines; the institution of a single compliance monitor for the whole project, with personnel on site at all times; the publicizing and enforcement of penalties for contractors who violate the guidelines; and the placement of monthly compliance-related payments by each contractor in an escrow account controlled by the compliance monitor. The basic gist: streamlining the process and making it more transparent, two things activist and watchdog groups have been pushing for all along.
NYU and Tamkeen released a joint statement in response to the report, which downplays the negative findings but does take responsibility for them. The organizations promise to examine Nardello’s recommendations, start a research initiative at NYUAD to study the international issue of labor recruitment fees, and pay the workers who, because of the faulty system, did not receive the compensation they should have.
The statement does not address the difficulty of the latter task, which reporter Ariel Kaminer, who co-wrote the Times investigation into NYUAD last year, pointed out on Twitter:
The statement simply says, “We will provide payment to those workers who were not covered by the compliance-monitoring program to bring their compensation into line with what they should have received under our labor standards” — followed immediately by, “NYU and Tamkeen will appoint an independent third party to implement this process.”