NYU Abu Dhabi Workers Treated Terribly; NYU Shrugs

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Emir Sexton. Photo: Henry S. Dziekan III/2010 Getty Images

Despite New York University's idealistic 2009 "statement of labor values," the construction of its satellite campus in the United Arab Emirates was completed by immigrant workers under largely awful conditions. The Abu Dhabi outpost, which was finished last month, is the crown jewel of an arrangement between the "global" university, led by president John Sexton, and the local ruling family, which paid for the campus and has donated $50 million to NYU (with millions more promised) despite a bad reputation for human rights abuses. The university says it's out of their hands. And besides, it's done now anyway! 

The New York Times interviewed "dozens of workers who built NYU's recently completed campus found that conditions on the project were often starkly different from the ideal":

Virtually every one said he had to pay recruitment fees of up to a year’s wages to get his job and had never been reimbursed. N.Y.U.’s list of labor values said that contractors are supposed to pay back all such fees. Most of the men described having to work 11 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, just to earn close to what they had originally been promised, despite a provision in the labor statement that overtime should be voluntary.

The men said they were not allowed to hold onto their passports, in spite of promises to the contrary. [...] Some men lived in squalor, 15 men to a room. The university said there should be no more than four.

The workers interviewed were promised about $400 a month, but after expenses, "Even working 11 hours a day, six days a week, they struggle to send home much more than $100 a month."

A spokesperson for NYU said this was the first they'd heard about unrest among the workers and that the school is "working with our partners to have it investigated." The executive director of campus operations for NYU Abu Dhabi added, "We're not involved in the negotiation of the contracts that the partners are doing, just as they're not in the negotiation of the contracts that we're doing. We have a relationship with our partners, and so we have to trust that what they’re coming up with are the reasonable wages on their end."

"I just don’t think that universities and museums should be working like Wal-Mart," one NYU professor told BuzzFeed, speaking for the many critical of the long-planned expansion. "I think the opportunity for students to be in the Middle East and North Africa, you know, is wonderful. I believe in global education. But I think you also need to question the terms of production."

Graduation, the first in the new buildings, will be held on Sunday, with Bill Clinton set to speak, welcoming NYU into the future.