Lapses in Labor Monitoring

An investigative report found that about a third of the workers who constructed New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus were not covered under publicly articulated labor protections.

April 17, 2015

An investigation into labor conditions for the workers who built New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi corroborated many of the allegations of abuses reported by media and human rights organizations.

The report by Nardello & Co. found that approximately a third of the estimated 30,000 workers who built the campus worked for subcontractors that were exempted from NYU’s labor guidelines -- and the protections therein -- because their contracts fell below certain monetary or time-related thresholds. NYU and other key parties did not appear to know about what the report describes as a “de facto exemption policy.”

NYU’s Abu Dhabi government partner, Tamkeen, commissioned the investigative report after a New York Times article last May chronicled harsh conditions for construction workers building the campus and found that those conditions often conflicted “starkly” with those expressed in NYU’s public statement of labor values. NYU’s publicly articulated labor guidelines call, among other things, for employers to reimburse employees for fees associated with the recruitment process, for employees to retain their own passports and other personal documents, for construction workers to work no more than 48 hours per week with all overtime work voluntary and “compensated at premium rates,” and for workers to have access to employer-provided medical insurance and paid vacation, holidays and maternity leave. ​

The Nardello investigation, which, according to the final report, was based on extensive document reviews, site visits and interviews, including with approximately 340 construction workers, found that “there was substantial evidence to support the reported allegations of violations of the labor guidelines, but that the conditions were not as widespread as implied. In fact, based on our sample pool of interviews, it appears that the majority of workers on the main campus project, to varying degrees, benefited from the protections of the labor guidelines.”  

The report continues: “Our investigation also determined that while the goals of the labor guidelines were admirable, 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 labor guidelines, but rather the exclusion of thousands of workers from the protections afforded by these guidelines.”

The report found that the three main construction companies on the ground agreed upon a system of exemptions for subcontractors with short-term or low value (under $1 million) contracts without the apparent knowledge of NYU; its local government partners, Tamkeen and the Executive Affairs Authority; or a company hired for compliance monitoring purposes, Mott MacDonald. The report states that “accounts vary” regarding the extent of each party’s knowledge but concludes that there at least “appears to have been significant confusion regarding the exemptions.”

The investigation found that the majority -- though not all -- of “the serious allegations” involved the 30-35 percent of construction workers who were employed by subcontractors that were in practice exempted from complying with NYU’s labor guidelines. The specific allegations investigated by Nardello & Co. and discussed in detail in the 72-page report involved reported failures to reimburse migrant workers for fees they’d paid in the recruitment process, the mistreatment of striking workers, the retention of employee passports by employers, and issues involving the late payment of wages and nonpayment of back pay, involuntary overtime and substandard worker housing.

Nick McGeehan, a Gulf researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that what the Nardello report “underscores most of all are the challenges to setting up in these places. What NYU tried to do was insulate itself from a highly exploitative construction sector. We’re talking about a labor system that in effect facilitates forced labor.”

“It’s difficult to effectively insulate yourself from that, particularly when you have these very long labor supply chains,” McGeehan said. 

Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU, said the report vindicated the recommendations of a student and faculty group, the Coalition for Fair Labor, which had opposed the selection of Mott MacDonald for compliance monitoring. “The real revelation about the Nardello report was that under Mott MacDonald’s watch, up to 35 percent of the workers who were engaged in the construction of that campus were exempted from the compliance provisions, which is really quite astonishing,” said Ross, who reported being blocked last month by United Arab Emirates officials from boarding a plane bound for Abu Dhabi, where he planned to continue his own research into labor issues. 

Mott MacDonald, a British company, did not provide comment on the Nardello report on Thursday afternoon. The report states that though Mott MacDonald "had ultimate responsibility as the “independent 'third party verifier,' there was a multitiered [compliance] monitoring scheme that involved several companies.” 

Indeed, the Nardello report found the compliance monitoring process to be "unduly complicated," which "had the effect of not vesting ownership of compliance monitoring with one accountable party."

In a joint statement, NYU and its Abu Dhabi government partner Tamkeen accepted responsibility for the exemption policy that resulted in a third of the workforce being unprotected -- an "error" which they described as being "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 program."

“Accordingly, we will 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 labor standards. NYU and Tamkeen will appoint an independent third party to implement this process, and we commit to ensuring that we will not allow such a compliance gap to occur in the future." 

The statement continues: “The report also found some remaining isolated cases of workers who, while covered by the project’s compliance regime, did not receive the full amount of wages they should have, and we are committed to rectifying those situations as well.”

“In addition, Nardello & Co. made a number of recommendations for the project, including on how standards are enforced, passport retention and accommodation standards. These recommendations will be studied in depth and, where feasible, we intend to act on them.”

Construction on NYU's campus in Abu Dhabi largely concluded last spring. In its statement, the university said the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute will launch a research initiative into the subject of recruitment fees paid by migrant workers. 


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