As a student, I travelled to NYU’s satellite campus and was shocked by its human rights abuses

Laborers work on a housing village for construction workers on Saadiyat Island.
Laborers work on a housing village for construction workers on Saadiyat Island.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Parsons
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For many educational and cultural establishments, the Gulf has become the epicenter of lavish construction projects. Qatar is home to a consortium of schools in Doha’s Education City, and will soon house futuristic stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup tournament, FIFA corruption and leadership scandals notwithstanding. In the United Arab Emirates, a group of modern art museums—including the Guggenheim and the Louvre—will open by 2017, alongside the newly-constructed campus of New York University.

But as prestigious institutions flock to the region, too little attention is being paid to the ugly human rights abuses these projects spawn. My alma mater, New York University, is a case study in how not to engage in Gulf construction projects.

When I was a junior in 2013, I chose to study abroad at the Abu Dhabi branch of NYU and met some of the migrant workers building our new campus. The program in the United Arab Emirates capital was new and the NYU campus on Saadiyat Island—the so-called “Island of Happiness”—was still under construction.

Saadiyat is being transformed into a luxurious, international cultural and education hub, with five-star hotels and starchitect-designed museums. But many of the chiefly South Asian workers who are laboring to turn this $27 billion dollar enterprise into reality are heavily indebted, underpaid, and mistreated. What I witnessed there shocked me.

In January 2014, I looked up Al Dar, the name of a migrant labor camp on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi housing workers for NYU and other projects. These labor camps are known as “Hospitality Villages.” I printed out a Google map with directions to the camp and hailed a taxi. The camp was a quick, 10 minute drive from “Ferrari World,” and included six operational villages warehousing workers in brutal heat.

At Al Dar, I spoke to workers and a pharmacist who claimed that wages peak at $137 a month, and workers can be “punished” if they fail to complete projects on time. The pharmacist had treated workers suffering from pain and heat, who were, he said “sometimes very, very weak.”

Before my visit, a Dec. 2013 exposé in the Guardian described sordid accommodations for the workers building the new NYU campus. Human Rights Watch has also forcefully condemned the “kafala” system of sponsorship-based employment practiced in the UAE, which tethers migrant workers to their employers, and can make them vulnerable to unfair labor practices.

In April 2015, the results of an investigation (pdf) commissioned by NYU’s Abu Dhabi government partner to “conduct a review into the allegations made in recent media reports” were made public. The report by the global investigative firm Nardello & Co revealed that, while the majority of workers interviewed had been paid the wages guaranteed by NYU’s labor guidelines, roughly a third of the 30,000 who built our Saadiyat Island campus were in fact excluded from the benefit of those guidelines, because they worked for subcontractors. 

According to the same investigation, throughout the four-year construction of NYU’s island campus, the minimum wage stipulated for workers was a paltry $217 a month. An estimated 25,000 workers were found to have paid recruitment fees as high as $3,000, although NYU’s Abu Dhabi director of public affairs, Greg Bruno, suggested to the New Yorker in January 2014 that such fees were relatively rare. Nardello & Co’s findings also corroborated the New York Times’ assertion that some 200 workers were beaten, jailed, and deported in Oct. 2013 after striking in solidarity with workers on projects elsewhere.

John Sexton, our university president, once said that NYU’s mandate is to “build excellence.” But this investigation confirms what we have known for some time; that our Abu Dhabi campus was built through means that fell well short of excellence.

President Sexton acknowledged most of these shortcomings in an email to the NYU community in April 2015, which reads in part:

The bottom line is that while the media and NGO reports were not representative of the treatment of most workers on the project, they did point to what the Nardello & Co. report identified as an unfortunate reality: approximately one-third of those working on the project, and in particular those workers who were employed by firms that were exempted from the labor standards, did not receive the benefit of the project’s standards.


We acknowledge the lapses, will learn from them, and will attempt to rectify them.

(Sexton’s statement also notes that NYU’s construction safety record on Saadiyat was excellent, beating that of the “exemplary” London Olympics.)

But the same email suggests that the university was unaware of the exemption policy, a policy that failed to protect 10,000 workers. The Nardello investigation, however, suggested that some NYU employees did know of the exemption policy.

When I questioned my university in Jan. 2014 about what I found at Al Dar, all I received was a recycled PR statement claiming NYU prioritizes the welfare of those building the Abu Dhabi campus. A year later, the administration argued that its labor standards benefited “at least 20,000 workers” and that the accomplishments “outweigh” the shortcomings. When I reached out to NYU for comment on this story, public affairs directed me to two press releases: a statement from NYU Abu Dhabi, and the above email from President Sexton.

In the NYU Abu Dhabi statement the university said that it takes full responsibility for any errors and announced it will pay back workers for lost wages, a process that is currently underway. It has also launched a research initiative on the transnational recruitment process.

But NYU can do more.

As a leading research university allegedly committed to “inventing new ways to meet humanity’s challenges,” NYU can develop cross-campus research aimed at devising solutions to the challenges confronted by workers in the region, beyond transnational recruitment, including reforms to the “kafala” system that heavily entraps workers.

It could also make lump-sum payments to reimburse workers for exorbitant recruitment fees. Moreover, NYU’s compensation package may still exclude at least 200 workers who were deported. NYU should compensate these workers for any damages incurred during their deportation, as students and faculty have demanded since February. NYU is responsible for all of the workers associated with its campus; it cannot pick and choose which mistreated ones it will repay.

I am not just concerned about the workers who built NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, however; the abuse of migrant workers is systemic across the Gulf. Instead of standing up for workers’ rights in a region that systematically violates them, NYU has allowed the abuse to stand, and grow.

As an alumna of NYU, it troubles me that an institution that was supposed to engage and foster ethical leadership and practices has been complicit in unjust ones. I hope all the international institutions seeking a toehold in the Gulf will realize that global expansion doesn’t have to trump their moral obligation to respecting human dignity.