[Marxism] Workers at N.Y.U.’s Abu Dhabi Site Faced Harsh Conditions

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 19 07:00:51 MDT 2014


NY Times, May 19 2014
Workers at N.Y.U.’s Abu Dhabi Site Faced Harsh Conditions
By ARIEL KAMINER and SEAN O’DRISCOLL

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — The strike had entered its second day 
when construction workers at Labor Camp 42 got word that their bosses 
from the BK Gulf corporation had come to negotiate. Mohammed Amir Waheed 
Sirkar, an electrician from Bangladesh, scrambled down the stairs to 
meet them. But when he got to the courtyard, he saw the truth: It wasn’t 
the bosses who had come. It was the police.

They pounded on doors, breaking some down, and hauled dozens of men to 
prison. Mr. Sirkar was taken to a Dubai police station, where officers 
interrogated him. After a while, new officers arrived. That’s when 
things got rough.

“They beat me up,” he said through an Urdu interpreter, “asking me to 
confess I was involved in starting the strike.” Others were slapped, 
kicked, or beaten with shoes, a special indignity in Arab culture.

After nine days in jail, Mr. Sirkar was deported, as were hundreds of 
other workers.

The forceful response was typical for the United Arab Emirates, where 
strikes are illegal and labor conditions grim, but most of the men who 
went on strike last October were working on a project that originated in 
America: a large new campus for New York University.

Facing criticism for venturing into a country where dissent is not 
tolerated and labor can resemble indentured servitude, N.Y.U. in 2009 
issued a “statement of labor values” that it said would guarantee fair 
treatment of workers. But interviews by The New York Times with dozens 
of workers who built N.Y.U.’s recently completed campus found that 
conditions on the project were often starkly different from the ideal.

Virtually every one said he had to pay recruitment fees of up to a 
year’s wages to get his job and had never been reimbursed. N.Y.U.’s list 
of labor values said that contractors are supposed to pay back all such 
fees. Most of the men described having to work 11 or 12 hours a day, six 
or seven days a week, just to earn close to what they had originally 
been promised, despite a provision in the labor statement that overtime 
should be voluntary.

The men said they were not allowed to hold onto their passports, in 
spite of promises to the contrary. And the experiences of the BK Gulf 
strikers, a half dozen of whom were reached by The Times in their home 
countries, stand in contrast to the standard that all workers should 
have the right to redress labor disputes without “harassment, 
intimidation, or retaliation.”

Some men lived in squalor, 15 men to a room. The university said there 
should be no more than four.

“Not happy,” Munawar, a painter from Bangladesh who only gave one name 
declared, speaking in limited English. Back home, he said, they have 
lives, families. “Come here,” he concluded, “not happy.”

N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi is a bold undertaking, matching the ambitions of one of 
the world’s wealthiest nations with those of America’s largest private 
university. It is also one of the most closely watched of a growing 
number of experiments in academic globalization. N.Y.U.’s president, 
John Sexton, has called the outpost, an entire degree-granting 
institution, “an opportunity to transform the university and, frankly, 
the world.”

But Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is an unlikely 
setting for a university built on the American model. Academic freedom 
is unheard-of, criticizing government is a crime and an employment 
system known as kafala leaves millions of immigrant workers tethered to 
the companies that sponsor their visas.

N.Y.U. has said the campus will be built and run as a “cultural free 
zone,” where the university’s core values prevail, from the treatment of 
workers to the protection of scholarly inquiry. The university says that 
its efforts to ensure humane living and working conditions have been 
unprecedented.

Told of the laborers’ complaints, officials said they could not vouch 
for the treatment of individual construction workers, since they are not 
employees of the university but rather of companies that work as 
contractors or subcontractors for the government agency overseeing the 
project. Those companies are contractually obligated to follow the 
statement of labor values.

To help monitor the situation, an engineering firm, Mott MacDonald, has 
been on hand to interview workers and prepare annual reports. The 
latest, released last month, noted some challenges, including a single 
contractor who fell behind on one month’s wages, but concluded, “Over 
all, there is strong evidence confirming the N.Y.U.A.D. project is 
taking workers’ rights seriously.”

The report made no mention of the BK Gulf strike, or the strikers’ 
demands for more pay.

Mott MacDonald declined to discuss its report. John Beckman, N.Y.U.’s 
chief spokesman, said in a recent email that university officials were 
not aware of any unrest and were “working with our partners to have it 
investigated.”

Luxury Next Door

N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi rises just to the northeast of the city’s busy 
downtown, on a vast sun-baked expanse called Saadiyat Island. The 
island, whose name means “happiness” in Arabic, is being developed as a 
world-class culture destination, with outposts of the Louvre and the 
Guggenheim Museum that, like its neighbor, were paid for by Abu Dhabi’s 
ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

The broad slope of a lacy dome is just now coming into view on the 
Louvre’s site. The Guggenheim is still just a building-size hole, with a 
skeleton crew of workers pumping out water. But both museum projects 
have attracted unwelcome attention from human rights groups. In March, 
members of Gulf Labor, a group of artists and writers, unfurled protest 
banners in the Guggenheim’s New York home to call attention to working 
conditions in Abu Dhabi.

Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s director, said it was committed to 
fair labor standards and noted that “the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is not yet 
under construction.”

N.Y.U.’s construction is now complete. When the undergraduate program, 
which has so far been operating out of temporary facilities, holds its 
first graduation on Sunday at the new campus, former President Bill 
Clinton will be on hand to usher N.Y.U. into the next phase of its life 
as a “global network university.”

A vast majority of the roughly 6,000 people who built that campus have 
been housed in large labor camps. Security guards keep visitors from 
entering those camps, but N.Y.U. officials say the conditions there are 
excellent, with what are described as “on-site leisure facilities” and 
“a wide range of recreational pursuits.”

The company Munawar works for, City Falcon, housed him, along with a few 
dozen other laborers, in a small tenement building in the city’s 
business district.

Just a few blocks up the street are the modern buildings that have 
served as N.Y.U.’s temporary campus; a few blocks in the other direction 
is the stunning ultraluxury hotel where the university has staged 
cultural events.

Inside City Falcon’s squalid quarters, the bedrooms are so crowded that 
the men must 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. In the space between the beds, the men 
pile cauliflower, onions and 75-pound sacks of Basmati rice to cook 
after working all day and washing the construction dirt from their 
clothes. Tangles of exposed wiring hang down from the ceiling, and 
cockroaches climb the walls.

In the smaller of the two rooms in this apartment, where the only window 
is covered over, more than a dozen men share a space of barely 200 
square feet. They drape towels down from the bed above them to eke out a 
tiny realm of privacy.

The men who live there, like millions of other South Asian laborers in 
Abu Dhabi, came for one reason: to earn money for their families back 
home. One City Falcon employee, a soft-spoken man with a boyish face, is 
helping support five brothers. Another supports four children, ages 6 to 
14. Others have toddlers they have never met.

One painter said he was promised a base pay of 1,500 dirham a month, or 
$408. After he arrived, he said, he found out it would be 700 dirham, 
about what other Saadiyat Island construction workers have been reported 
to make.

Overtime boosts that to 1,000 dirham, or $272. But food costs more than 
a third of that. Cellphones, the men’s lifeline to the world they left 
behind, take another cut. And the annual raises they were promised have 
not materialized. Even working 11 hours a day, six days a week, they 
struggle to send home much more than $100 a month.

That is how the numbers work on paper; in reality they are far worse. 
Almost all of the several dozen workers interviewed, working for a 
variety of companies and living at a half-dozen labor camps, said that a 
recruiter back home charged them about a year’s wages to land them the 
jobs. (Recruitment fees are widespread in the U.A.E., despite being 
officially illegal; Human Rights Watch calls them “the single greatest 
factor in creating conditions of forced labor.”)

The City Falcon workers, like all the men interviewed, said they were 
not allowed to keep their own passports. A group of laborers in a nearby 
apartment who had recently finished installing furniture on the Saadiyat 
Island campus said they were not even allowed to hold their own bank 
cards. To get cash they have to ask the man they called the “owner”: the 
recruiter who brought them over from Bangladesh, who sleeps in the room 
with them.

Attempts to reach City Falcon managers were not successful.

BK Gulf, the company whose workers went on strike last October, said it 
was “obliged by confidentiality clauses to make no comment whatsoever 
without the express permission of our client.” Mubadala, the government 
entity overseeing the construction of the N.Y.U. campus, said it would 
not comment on any aspect of the project.

Challenging the System

By laying out its standards for labor in a country with no tradition of 
workers’ rights, N.Y.U. took on a considerable challenge — one that many 
companies in the region are content to ignore. Sustaining the academic 
freedom that is a core value of its New York campus will pose a similar 
challenge. In both cases, the challenge is made more complex by the fact 
that the university is in effect a guest of the ruling family, which has 
not only paid for the 21-building campus and for generous tuition 
subsidies, but also has contributed the first of what are expected to be 
several $50 million donations to N.Y.U. as a whole.

In recent years, the United Arab Emirates, which has been accused of 
torturing political prisoners, has intensified its crackdown on dissent. 
And though neighboring Qatar, which is preparing for the 2022 World Cup, 
recently announced reforms to the kafala system, in U.A.E. it remains 
firmly in place.

On some of the labor protections that N.Y.U. set forth, including a ban 
on child labor and a requirement that workers get free transportation to 
their job sites, The Times’s reporting turned up no violations.

Margaret Bavuso, the executive director of campus operations for N.Y.U. 
Abu Dhabi, said she had worked closely with contractors and the 
government of Abu Dhabi to ensure better conditions than laborers in the 
U.A.E. could otherwise expect. “The government has become much, much 
more responsive in the time that we’ve been here,” she said, citing 
among other things new rules to ban outdoor work during the hottest 
hours of the hottest months.

She is especially proud of the university’s safety record, achieved in 
part through a program that rewards workers who notice potential 
hazards. According to the university, only one worker has died, and its 
accident rate — 0.03 accidents per 100,000 work hours — was far lower 
than at other large-scale construction jobs, including Olympic Park in 
London, which had a rate of 0.16.

At one of the recent safety awards ceremonies, Ms. Bavuso said, Al 
Bloom, the vice chancellor of N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi, addressed thousands of 
laborers who had come from countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, 
Bangladesh and Nepal. Ms. Bavuso says he told them: “All of you have 
worked so very hard on this project. Your children are benefiting from 
the work that you do on this project. There is no reason that those 
children, as they get educated in your country, that they can’t apply to 
go to school here. And just think about how exciting it would be for 
them to attend a school that you built.’ ”

Mr. Beckman, the N.Y.U. spokesman, disputed that some workers are not 
paid a living wage. “Wages on the N.Y.U.A.D. project are designed to 
place workers at the top of the range in their respective categories,” 
he said.

But in a separate interview, Ms. Bavuso said that beyond setting forth 
the broad principle of fair compensation, N.Y.U. does not actually 
monitor what the construction companies pay their workers, nor should 
it. “We’re not involved in the negotiation of the contracts that the 
partners are doing, just as they’re not in the negotiation of the 
contracts that we’re doing,” she said. “We have a relationship with our 
partners, and so we have to trust that what they’re coming up with are 
the reasonable wages on their end.”

N.Y.U. officials said that no complaints had been raised about the 
treatment of the security guards, cafeteria cooks and secretaries who 
staffed N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi’s temporary location while its permanent campus 
was being built. Over the years, 19 of them were identified as having 
paid a recruitment fee, and they were reimbursed, officials said.

As for the men who were building the new campus — who outnumber those 
nonconstruction staff members by about 30 to 1 — Ms. Bavuso drew a 
distinction. Construction workers who “were recruited for this job,” she 
said, are treated with the same protections as the university’s own 
staff. But that is not possible, she said, for a worker brought over by 
a construction company and moved from site to site.
Photo
N.Y.U.’s construction at Saadiyat Island is now complete. Credit Sergey 
Ponomarev for The New York Times

The construction workers, however, did not describe having been 
recruited for any particular job site. They say they were recruited by 
manpower agencies or by construction companies that, like most large 
contractors, have people stationed at several job sites. The men might 
spend five months on one project, two years on another, just going where 
they are sent.

Stuck in Limbo

With major construction at N.Y.U. now concluded, most workers have moved 
on to other job sites. Those who were arrested for striking are back in 
their home countries.

Ramkumar Rai and Tibendra Kota, two Nepali men who worked for a 
contractor, Robodh, on the N.Y.U. site (for months, in Mr. Rai’s case; 
years, in Mr. Kota’s), are still in limbo.

 From a certain perspective, both were success stories. They got 
promotions. They got raises. They made decent money. But during their 
last six months on the university site, their employer fell behind on 
wages. And then in February 2013, their jobs came to an end.

Since then they have asked many times for their back pay, and have even 
gone to the company’s headquarters in Dubai, where they say they got a 
meeting with someone who introduced himself as the chief executive. But 
they have gotten only tiny sums of cash, and a request that they not 
pursue the matter in labor court.

It has been 16 months since they were last paid, during which time their 
work visas expired; even if they decided to give up the fight, they 
would face stiff exit fines at the airport. They could not afford to fly 
themselves home anyway: Over the course of more than a year without pay, 
they have racked up more than $1,000 in debt at the local grocery. So 
they stay, and they wait.

Jayaprakash Punathil, an assistant general manager at Robodh, said he 
was not aware of any outstanding payments.

Said Mr. Rai:

“They keep saying, ‘We’ll send the money; we’ll send it,’ but they don’t.”

“There’s no work; there’s no money: It’s really hard,” he said. “Having 
done so much work, to have no money: It’s so painful.”

Sondra Hausner contributed reporting from Oxford, England, and Kiran 
Nazish from New York.



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