Shame On NYU

by Jonah Shepp

The cover story in yesterday’s NYT exposed the deplorable conditions of the laborers who built New York University’s new satellite campus in Abu Dhabi, where Bill Clinton will address the first graduating class this Sunday. Overworked, underpaid, living in squalor, with their passports confiscated, no rights or recourse to justice… gee, they sound just like other migrant workers in the Gulf. But NYU had claimed they would do better. Joe Coscarelli sums up the university’s lame response:

A spokesperson for NYU said this was the first they’d heard about unrest among the workers and that the school is “working with our partners to have it investigated.” The executive director of campus operations for NYU Abu Dhabi added, “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. 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.”

“I just don’t think that universities and museums should be working like Wal-Mart,” one NYU professor told BuzzFeed, speaking for the many critical of the long-planned expansion. “I think the opportunity for students to be in the Middle East and North Africa, you know, is wonderful. I believe in global education. But I think you also need to question the terms of production.”

That the NYU administration thinks anyone will buy the line that they just “have to trust” their contractors not to exploit workers is laughable. It’s called due diligence, and they clearly didn’t bother with it. But I’m also a bit shocked that anyone is shocked by this; as Keating points out, it is depressingly common for international institutions that do business in the Gulf to take advantage of these countries’ lack of labor protections:

When internationally renowned architect Zaha Hadid, designer of the largest of Qatar’s World Cup stadiums, was asked to respond to reports that over 382 Nepali migrant workers had died in construction related to the World Cup on top of the more than 500 Indian migrants who have died in the country in 2012, she replied, “I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government—if there’s a problem—should pick up.”

Most of the large institutions setting up shop in the Gulf probably wouldn’t be quite so callous as to say that working conditions simply aren’t their problem, but it’s nonetheless the case that as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have given free reign and enormous resources to cultural institutions like NYU, the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and FIFA, and turned themselves into architectural playgrounds for the likes of Hadid, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and I.M. Pei. The well-known fact that the Gulf’s construction boom depends on foreign migrant workers enticed by false promises into near-slave labor conditions has often been conveniently brushed to the side.

The administration has since apologized, but Coscarelli is not impressed:

NYU President John Sexton, the man who struck up a partnership with Abu Dhabi’s royal family, called the treatment “if true as reported, troubling and unacceptable … They are out-of-line with the labor standards we deliberately set for those constructing the ‘turn-key’ campus being built for us on Saadiyat Island and inconsistent with what we understood to be happening on the ground for those workers.” (Most worked for contractors, not the university directly.)

The apologies are all well and good on the PR front, but as one worker, waiting more than a year for his last six months of pay, told the Times, “When will the money come? If the money comes it will be O.K.” Sorry doesn’t feed a family.

Neither is Erik Loomis:

NYU could have had someone on site monitoring the labor conditions that would actually try to find out what was going on rather one who papered over problems to make the client happy. It could employ these workers directly and be the responsible party for paying them. It could have constructed its own dormitories for these workers. But of course it did none of these things. NYU administrators were just following the cash. It contracted out the labor and completely forgot about it until the news reports about the exploitation came out. If NYU wants to take real responsibility, it will take on liability for these workers. Otherwise, this falls into the empty “I’m sorry we were caught” category of apology.

And neither am I.