In June 2015, New York University (NYU) pledged to compensate around 10,000 workers at its new Abu Dhabi campus after finding that roughly a third of the workforce was not protected by measures designed to safeguard them against labour abuse.
Two months earlier, NYU President John Sexton admitted in an open email to the university that there had been “real lapses” in labour standards in the building of the campus.
NYU had intended that workers on the project would benefit from higher wages, better housing and guaranteed benefits including overtime, medical insurance, flights home, and end-of-service benefits, he said.
Guidelines were in place to protect them from forced labour, poor wages, illegal recruitment fees poor living conditions.
But, unbeknown to the university, some local subcontractors – mainly those working on short-term contracts – had found shortcuts that enabled them to avoid implementing the guidelines.
An investigation carried out by Nardello & Co had revealed that around 10,000 workers, around a third of the total, had been exempt from guidelines.
The NYU and Tamkeen, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority, commissioned the probe in 2014 after media and NGO reports questioned the treatment of workers at the campus.
The report found workers were receiving late or substandard wages, involuntary overtime and that recruitment fees were unreimbursed.
Even among workers covered by the standards, relatively few retained their passports. And while, in some cases, this arrangement was voluntary it conflicted with guidelines requiring the employer should not hold employees’ passports.
“While we did not imagine that we could address the pernicious effects of recruitment fees for all who came into contact with our project, our intent was to ensure that our project did not cause such debt for those who were coming to join it,” said Sexton.
NYU has said it intends to act on the conclusions of the report, which recommended improving enforcement of the labour standards.
It advised scrapping loopholes that allowed subcontractors to escape the guidelines and preventing passport retention and recruitment fee policies while ensuring proper accommodation.
NYU said that the recruitment fees charged to workers to obtain jobs in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf were “too complicated for any one project to address”. However, it confirmed it would ensure employees who received worse treatment would be reimbursed and said the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute would research solutions to the recruitment-fee issue.