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April 16, 2015
N.Y.U. Labor Guidelines Failed to Protect 10,000 Workers in Abu Dhabi, Report Says

About one-third of the migrant construction workers employed atNew York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi — or about 10,000 people — were excluded from the protections of the university’s labor guidelines ensuring fair wages, hours and living conditions, according to aninvestigative report issued on Thursday.

The 72-page report said that some subcontractors were exempted from the guidelines based on decisions made by local contractors running the operation. One of those contractors was Mubadala, a real estate company owned by the government of Abu Dhabi.

“This practice of exempting companies from compliance created a significant gap in coverage that disenfranchised thousands of workers from the protections contemplated by the labor guidelines,” said the report, by the international investigative firm Nardello & Company.

The investigation was requested by N.Y.U. and an Abu Dhabi government agency after reports, including an article last May in The New York Times, were published saying that many of the workers, most of them recruited from South Asia, had been charged steep recruitment fees to get their jobs; that few were being paid what they had been promised; and that some lived in miserable conditions, all in contravention of standards N.Y.U. had established for the project. Those guidelines were developed in response to concerns about the region’s reputation for mistreatment of its imported work force.

In statements made on Thursday, N.Y.U. said the report found that a majority of the construction force had been treated in accordance with the guidelines. But it said it was taken by surprise by the findings on how many workers at the campus, which opened last year on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, had not been protected, and it added that it would repay any shortchanged workers.

“That error, for which we take full responsibility, was inconsistent with the project’s publicly stated commitment to ensure that all of those working on the construction of the N.Y.U.A.D. Saadiyat Campus would be covered by our standards and compliance-monitoring program,” an N.Y.U. statement said.

The university said that a third party would be hired to handle reimbursement of the workers, but it was not immediately clear how much money that would involve.

The report found that the exceptions to the guidelines were initially designed to apply to a narrow group, such as vendors delivering goods to the project. Mubadala and other contractors later expanded the exceptions to include subcontractors whose work fell below $1 million or who worked on-site for less than 31 days at a time, or with gaps of 30 days between visits, the report said.

Ultimately, this provided a financial incentive for contractors to break subcontracts into small amounts, eliminating extra costs for labor compliance, the report said.

The report was somewhat ambiguous about exactly how much N.Y.U. knew about the exemptions.

The report said that N.Y.U. did not know about the practice of granting exemptions, but it also said that “accounts vary” as to the extent of each party’s knowledge. Some N.Y.U. personnel interviewed said they were aware of a “time threshold,” the report said, but not the monetary threshold.

John Sexton, president of N.Y.U., said on Thursday that neither the university nor its Abu Dhabi government partner was aware of the exemption policy “or how widely it was being applied.”

The Nardello report took issue with some details in the Times article, specifically the genesis of a strike that led to the deportation of some workers. The report said the strike was related mostly to conditions at other projects in the area, where many hotels, businesses and cultural institutions have been expanding, in some cases, like N.Y.U.’s, with the financial backing of the oil-rich emirate.

But the report corroborated many of the article’s key findings. Among them was that hardly any of the workers had been reimbursed for fees, generally $1,000 to $3,000, that the workers had paid to recruitment agents in their home countries. The report estimated that more than 25,000 workers would have qualified for the reimbursement.

Only 20 workers were reimbursed, partly because the N.Y.U. policy requiring reimbursement was interpreted to apply only to workers hired specifically to work at the N.Y.U. campus. But most workers were employed by contractors working on several projects, and so were not limited to working on the N.Y.U. job.

The report cited evidence that N.Y.U., after promising in 2011 that it would reimburse recruitment fees even for workers who started on other projects, later narrowed the reimbursement to those “specifically recruited to our job site.” In addition, only those who could supply proof of having paid recruitment fees would receive reimbursement.

Daniel Nardello, chief executive of Nardello & Company, said such proof was virtually impossible because the recruiting agents are often dubious characters. “It would be like getting a receipt from a loan shark,” he said.

In an email on Thursday, an N.Y.U. spokesman, John Beckman, said the university believed it had established reasonable requirements. “We are disappointed with the gap between what we intended and the outcome,” he said.

The investigation also found that 30 percent of workers said they had to give up their passports to employers as a condition of working at the campus, a violation of the N.Y.U. labor guidelines.

Claims of poor conditions for workers in the United Arab Emirates date back to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report alleging mistreatment of many of the more than five million low-paid migrant workers who had been employed in the country. Saadiyat Island, a development project hosting the N.Y.U. campus and planned branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, had become a focal point of those complaints.

A Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch, Nicholas McGeehan, said the Nardello report was well researched, applauding N.Y.U. for its promise to compensate workers.

Both Mr. McGeehan and the Coalition for Fair Labor at NYU, a faculty-student group, called for restitution to about 200 workers deported as a result of the strike.

Representatives of the United Arab Emirates and its principality Abu Dhabi did not respond to emails seeking comment on the report, which noted a fundamental difference between Western attitudes toward workers’ rights and those in the emirates.

“It is evident that U.A.E. law is completely inconsistent with labor practices in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West,” the report said in a footnote.

In March, the emirates banned travel there by Andrew Ross, a professor at N.Y.U.’s New York campus, who had been critical of labor conditions. Last year, a freelance writer who collaborated on the Times article, Sean O’Driscoll, was also barred from the country.



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