I’ve been following this story in the New York Times for the last month. The photo above is of Bangladeshi workers in their Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) apartment. Thousands of these workers have been doing constructing the New York University Abu Dhabi campus, and, according to the New York Times, living in horrendous conditions and enduring patently unfair labor practices. The men above, for example, were provided an apartment as part of their contract – 40 people living in 400 square feet of space, and sharing two bathrooms. Moreover, the workers were promised a certain salary back in their home countries, but when they arrived in the UAE, were paid considerably less. Workers who went on strike to protest these and other infractions were beaten, jailed, and deported. Most workers had their passports taken from them, so they weren’t free to leave had they wanted to.
I should be clear here – N.Y.U. wasn’t the direct employer of these construction workers. But they hired the contractors who were. Because of the Times report, N.Y.U. has hired yet another contractor to investigate the claims. This will prove difficult, because the campus is finished, and many of the men working there have gone back to their countries of origin or have dispersed to other work sites.
I am glad for the report from the Times and I’m glad N.Y.U. is taking it seriously. It’s just too bad it took them so long. It’s too bad that large universities can easily hire contractors, especially contractors in the Gulf States that typically have no scruples where workers rights are concerned (more on this soon), and totally divest themselves of responsibility. These far away companies become like no-see-ums – pesky, but ultimately easily ignored.
This subject has become near and dear to my heart, principally because I spent a year working in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf States (such as the UAE) have an employment system for foreign workers called kafala. This system requires that all foreign workers have a native sponsor. I was sponsored by the college I worked for. Domestic workers (and there are millions of them) such as maids and drivers are sponsored by individual citizens. I presume the South Asian workers at the Abu Dhabi campus were sponsored by one of the Emirates contract companies. What is the problem with these sponsorship systems? Well, there are several egregious problems. For example, when I worked in Saudi Arabia I eventually received an iqama, a residence permit, through my sponsor. Without an iqama in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, you can’t do shit – can’t board a domestic flight, can’t conduct banking business, can’t stay in a hotel – the list goes on. But here’s another thing – the sponsor takes away your passport in exchange for the iqama, and you can’t leave the country without an exit visa from that sponsor (and your passport, obviously). Ideally, the sponsor returns your passport and gives you the exit visa when you badly need a vacation or are leaving the job all together. Ideally. In reality, this is not what happens. In reality, many many employers take their workers passports and never give them their iqama. Or, when they want to leave, will not provide the exit visa either, so they are stuck in the country. The system is rife with abuse. It is tantamount to slavery. Imagine if you’re in a dispute with your employer (and I knew several cases like this). The employer has total control of the situation – they can have you deported right away, or, worse still, they can force you to work indefinitely. All with low pay, which is probably less than they promised in the first place.
(I write about this a lot in my as yet unpublished memoir, My Heart is a Wilderness, about the year I spent in Saudi Arabia.)
After seeing this in Saudi Arabia, it sickens me that a prestigious American university has played a part in such a system. Clearly it was not enough that N.Y.U. had a Statement of Labor Values. Why the hell should an employment company out of the UAE care about that? And this raises a big question – when doing business overseas where the U.S. has no jurisdiction, what can you do about unfair labor practices? Probably you need some serious clout – and tactful diplomacy – to get to a monarch or other head of state so that they can put pressure on the employment company. I think N.Y.U. is doing that now, but doing it too late.
I don’t want to say that N.Y.U. has no business having a campus in Abu Dhabi. I know that is the direction that education is going – globalizing it to financially support institutions at home. Did I hear that N.Y.U. had promised the construction workers that their children could attend the university for free? I don’t think I’m making that up. A nice gesture, but good luck in finding the workers.
In my next post, I will probably talk about unfair labor issues in the U.S. You’re not off the hook on this, America.