Migrant workers outside a workers' camp in Mafraq, Abu Dhabi. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Migrant workers at an illegal market outside a workers’ camp in Mafraq, Abu Dhabi. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A mysterious investigation against New York University (NYU) professor Andrew Ross and New York Times reporter Ariel Kaminer is underway, the Times reported. Last week, Ross was denied a visa to the United Arab Emirates, where he was planning to conduct research on labor rights, while Kaminer published a widely disseminated report last year in the Times that outlined migrant labor issues in the Gulf region. A number of colleagues of Ross and Kaminer have been contacted by a private investigator, who is “looking for people to comment negatively” about them, according to one professor who was approached.

NYU released a statement that was critical of the investigation: “The university has no knowledge of this and no involvement … It’s reprehensible and offensive on its face, and we call on whoever is involved to desist immediately.”

The UAE and other Gulf nations have been sensitive to criticism of labor conditions in the region. When asked by the Times if it condemned the news of an investigation, the UAE embassy in Washington would not make a statement about the matter.

“Being investigated and banned is disturbing, but much worse things have happened to advocates for workers’ rights,” Andrew Ross told Hyperallergic. “And, to put this in perspective, in the UAE, workers themselves are being arrested, beaten, and deported if they speak up about their harsh treatment.” Various human rights and labor reports have highlighted the issues with the UAE’s treatment of migrant workers.

Ross participated in a number of protest actions at the Guggenheim Museum in New York that raised awareness of migrant labor rights in the UAE and their connection to the art world. In February 2014, Ross spoke to Hyperallergic and highlighted the objectives of his activism:

We’re trying to make a connection with chains of debt that are transnational, and in the various locations we’re looking at, Bangladesh, Abu Dhabi, NYU, and the art world, there’s an enormous accumulation of debt in each of these places, and the money is getting extracted by the transnational creditor class … And artists are more and more [in debt], and in order to practice art, you’re required to take on a big debt burden … so there’s a connection across many continents. Another art world is possible, one that’s more principled and ethical, and that looks out for the human and labor rights of all. Artists should not be asked to exhibit in museums that have been built on the back of abused workers … that’s what it boils down to. When you’re acquired by a museum that does that, that’s unfair. Your complicity is being bought along with the artwork.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.