Labour guidelines ‘violated’ on NYU Abu Dhabi campus

An independent investigation has found “substantial evidence” to support reported allegations of violations against Labour Guidelines during the construction of the New York University’s main campus in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

But it also found that the conditions were not as widespread as reports had implied and it appeared from interviews that “the majority of workers involved in constructing the main campus, to varying degrees, benefited from the protections of the Guidelines”.

The investigator’s report shines a light on the complex challenges that universities can face when building foreign campuses.

New York University, or NYU, and Tamkeen – a subsidiary of the governing agency of Abu Dhabi, which was set up to deliver the project and charged with overseeing compliance with workers’ rights – had called for the independent investigation in response to numerous allegations in the media and reports of non-governmental organisations.

The investigation was carried out by Nardello & Co, a global investigations company led by former US federal prosecutors. Its mission was to determine if the allegations were true and to make recommendations to strengthen procedures for complying with the Labour Guidelines.

According to Nardello’s report, published last month, the allegations included claims that the arrest, dismissal and deportation of some workers constructing the main campus during strikes related to the working conditions were in breach of Labour Guidelines.

Other allegations included:
  • • that recruitment fees – which are illegal in UAE but common in many workers’ home countries – had not been paid to workers;
  • • that employers had taken and held workers’ passports in violation of the guidelines;
  • • late payment and failure to pay back-pay;
  • • forcing workers to work overtime against their wishes; and
  • • labourers living in substandard housing conditions.
'Filthy, overcrowded housing'

For instance, The Guardian reported in 2013 that 43 Bangladeshi workers were living in “filthy, overcrowded camp housing” and were “crammed nine or ten to a windowless room”. Human Rights Watch also documented their case and identified them as painters.

The New York Times reported that Main Campus project workers were living in “squalor” and quoted a worker named ‘Munawar’ who said men were having to sleep “three to a stack – one on the upper bunk, one on the lower bunk and one below the lower bunk, separated from the floor by only a thin pad for a mattress”.

Tangles of exposed wiring hung from the ceiling and cockroaches climbed the walls, the New York Times reported.

In addition it was alleged that monitoring of compliance with the Labour Guidelines was ineffective.

However, the investigators found that on at least eight occasions involving seven different contractors the monitors found workers housed in substandard accommodation outside of Operative Villages on Yas Island, which had been specifically fitted to comply with the Labour Guidelines.

And in all of those cases the monitors required the subcontractor to relocate its workers to the Yas Island facility. Two exceptions were made in cases where workers had requested to stay in their location for cultural reasons.

In the case of the 43 painters, reports of which first alerted NYU and Tamkeen to the compliance gap, the monitors believed they were working for an exempt subcontractor.

NYU and Tamkeen nevertheless took action to move any remaining members of the company and any other exempt Main Campus workers living in substandard housing to Yas Island, which in the case of the 43 painters Human Rights Watch has corroborated.

Insufficient understanding

Overall, the investigation found that although monitors did not spot all violations, they did make repeated efforts to ensure compliance.

The real problem was that there was insufficient understanding by all key parties of the challenges in implementing and enforcing enhanced standards for the workers.

“We concluded that the single most significant problem was not one of enforcement of the Labour Guidelines, but rather the exclusion of thousands of workers from the protections afforded by these guidelines,” Nardello said in its report.

The investigation arose from New York University’s decision to open an NYU campus in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

Construction projects in the UAE and the wider Gulf region rely on the use of migrant labourers, many of whom come from the Asian subcontinent. These labourers often encounter difficult working conditions and abusive labour practices, Nardello said.

NYU and its government partners sought to take responsibility to protect workers by adopting principles to ensure fair working conditions to those involved in the construction and operation of the NYU campus and by implementing a compliance monitoring regime, Nardello said.

According to Nardello their actions were “largely unprecedented, and resulted in bettering the lot of many of those workers who were ultimately covered by the enhanced standards they adopted”.

Exempt subcontractors

However, problems arose from the division of labourers employed on the Main Campus into two pools: workers who were employed by subcontractors who were required to comply with the Labour Guidelines and workers employed by subcontractors who were deemed “exempt” from complying with the Labour Guidelines because their contracts fell below certain monetary or time thresholds.

Nardello found that the majority of allegations involved workers employed by the exempt contractors. They were estimated to comprise between 30% and 35% of the total pool of approximately 30,000 workers employed in the construction of the main campus.

Nardello said the Labour Guidelines were intended to cover all workers engaged in the construction of the Main Campus project and the operation of the Interim Campus. But in reality up to an estimated 35% did not receive those benefits, and the greatest single factor affecting the scope of those covered was a de facto policy, not disclosed publicly, that made numerous subcontractors exempt from the compliance.

The investigators found that a number of key parties in the development had agreed to expand the scope of exemptions, for instance to include subcontractors working on site for less than 31 days or where the value of their subcontractor package did not exceed US$1 million. However, it appeared that Tamkeen and NYU and the compliance monitors were either not aware of or were confused about aspects of the extra exemptions.

“This practice of exempting companies from compliance created a significant gap in coverage that disenfranchised thousands of workers from the protections contemplated by the Labour Guidelines,” Nardello concluded.

Those protections included guarantees that workers would received wages benchmarked to the highest wages in the region and live in higher standard housing.

Nardello reported that there were “significant errors in judgment” by compliance monitors concerning their interpretation of the Labour Guidelines, “most notably with respect to passport retention and reimbursement of recruitment fees”.

However, Nardello dismissed the impression given in the media and NGO reports that Labour Guidelines were merely an exercise in public relations to address criticism of labour conditions in the UAE.

“A careful analysis of the facts, many of which were not available to the media and NGOs, showed that NYU and its government partners intended to improve conditions for workers on the Main Campus Project and made a real effort to implement the Labour Guidelines,” the Nardello report said.

In a joint statement issued on 16 April, New York University and Tamkeen said they had set out in 2007 to create “an outstanding new liberal arts research university, an institution that would have the highest academic standards, draw in the finest students, and recruit the finest faculty”.

But they had also established a set of labour standards, building upon UAE law and market-leading practices, deigned to ensure that the institution’s commitment would extend to those who were building and maintaining the university’s facilities.

’Good faith efforts’

“We welcome the publication of Nardello & Co’s report which confirms that Tamkeen and NYU made good faith efforts to set and enforce standards that protected and benefited the substantial majority of the approximately 30,000 individuals who worked on the construction of the Abu Dhabi campus,” the statement said.

However, the statement also acknowledged that the organisations responsible for the project allowed a “compliance gap” to occur, resulting in some subcontractors falling outside of the project’s labour guidelines and compliance oversight, affecting approximately one third of the work force.

“That error – for which we take responsibility – was inconsistent with the project’s publicly stated commitment to ensure that all of those working on the construction of the NYUAD Saadiyat Campus would be covered by our standards and compliance-monitoring programme.”

NYU and Tamkeen pledged to pay workers who were not covered by the compliance programme to bring their compensation into line with what they should have received under labour standards; and to rectify the isolated cases found of workers who were covered by the Labour Guidelines but had not been fully paid.

They also pledged to launch a research initiative to identify potential solutions to the recruitment fee problem, which is a “complex, multi-jurisdictional challenge”.