How did New York University uphold workers' rights during the construction and operation of its Abu Dhabi satellite campus?
In 2007, New York University announced plans to open a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Construction of the $1 billion campus on Saadiyat Island commenced in 2010. In advance of the campus' construction, NYU released a set of labour guidelines, known as the Statement of Labor Values, which sought to ensure that migrant workers involved in the construction of NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) would be treated and compensated fairly.
Throughout the construction of the NYUAD campus, journalists and human rights groups documented the alleged mistreatment of workers employed on Saadiyat Island construction projects, including the NYUAD project. An investigation by The New York Times in May 2014 documented the deplorable treatment of NYU workers, including allegations of the unlawful deportation of hundreds for striking. In the UAE, migrant workers are denied fundamental labour rights, such as the right to strike and collectively bargain. In response to the Times' investigation and other reports, NYU commissioned the global law firm Nardello & Co to conduct an independent review into the allegations of abuse brought forth by the media.
Nardello & Co released its report in April 2015, which revealed that NYU’s labour guidelines failed to protect 10,000 of the 30,000 workers employed on the NYUAD campus project. One of the project’s main contractors, the government-owned real estate company Mubadala, devised an exemption policy that excluded workers employed on projects valued less than $1 million and those working on sites for less than 31 days at a time from the university's labour protections. The total number of workers who fell under this category totalled 10,000. The report also found that an estimated 25,000 workers paid recruitment fees as high as $3000 and were never reimbursed, and corroborated the allegation that at least 200 workers in connection with the NYUAD project were deported for striking.
In light of these findings, NYU announced a wage remediation program designed to compensate the short-changed workers. While NYUAD and its government partners did not make the minimum monthly wage for their workers public throughout the construction of the Saadiyat Island campus, the Nardello & Co report revealed that the minimum wage was set at $217 a month. NYU’s government partners had commissioned a study to determine a wage suitable for the NYUAD project, stating that a monthly wage of $217 was "benchmarked to the highest wages in the region" and citing an average wage of $177 a month.
As of 1 May 2017, the university and its partners had compensated 6600 workers for this back pay, with 2000 more identified as eligible for wage remediation. While the remediation procedures are a step forward, NYU's compensation program excludes recruitment fees, despite the fact that NYU’s labour guidelines stipulate that employers are to cover the costs of recruitment, as well as the deported workers from the reimbursement scheme.
In May 2018, the Coalition for Fair Labor – a group of NYU faculty members and students – released a report claiming that NYUAD failed to mitigate forced labor risks in respect of f thousands of workers throughout the construction and operations of its campus from 2010 to the present. NYU disagreed with the report, saying it was "neither right nor fair." NYU subsequently released its third-party verifer compliance report conducted by Impactt Limited. The Impactt Limited report found “a good level of compliance among contractors and a high level of satisfaction among workers.”