NYU Abu Dhabi workers entitled to better, report finds

Thousands of workers who built New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi were excluded from the institution’s enhanced labour standards, an independent report says.

April 17, 2015

The review, published on 16 April, corroborates several allegations made in the media and by non-governmental organisations about the treatment of workers on the Saadiyat Island site.

All workers on the project should have been guaranteed living and working conditions that went beyond the United Arab Emirates’ labour laws under guidelines issued by NYU and its government partners.

But the report, commissioned by NYU and Tamkeen, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority, finds that between 30 and 35 per cent of the approximately 30,000 workers employed on the campus project were excluded from these protections.

This is because the notion of an exemption, which was designed to apply to companies that, for example, merely delivered goods to the site, was widened by some contractors to apply to any contract valued at less than $1 million (£670,000) or involving less than a month on site.

The report says that NYU, the Abu Dhabi authorities and their agent Mott McDonald were apparently unaware of this use of exemptions, and that in any event there was “significant confusion” about the subject.

It adds that this system of exemptions created an incentive for work to be subcontracted into smaller packages that removed the need to comply with the enhanced standards.

One of the key allegations levelled against the Saadiyat Island project was that a promise to reimburse any workers who had paid agency fees to secure work in the UAE was not fulfilled. Approximately 85 per cent of workers interviewed by the report’s authors had paid these fees, typically of between $1,000 and $3,000.

The report finds that many of the companies involved in the project wrongly interpreted the guidelines to apply only to workers who had paid fees specifically to work on the campus project, and could provide proof of payment.

This meant that in reality only about 20 operations personnel employed at NYU’s interim campus at Abu Dhabi got their money back.

But the report also states that the commitment of NYU and its government partners to enhanced standards was “real, implemented in good faith and, to a large measure, effective”.

In a joint statement, NYU and Tamkeen said that they would “provide payment to those workers who were not covered by the compliance monitoring program to bring their compensation into line with what they should have received under our [labour] standards”.


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