The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has recently published a 90-page report on the status and conditions of migrant workers in the UAE, and NYU is directly implicated. Beyond the gross abuse of human rights lies a more chilling fact: in the 5 years since the HRW first disclosed information regarding the human rights violations endured by scores of laborers on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, almost nothing has changed.
Housed in squalor, denied their promised recruitment fees and wages, and robbed of their passports, around one thousand migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka have found themselves in debt, without a home, and more recently, without work. When hundreds of workers went on strike to protest their conditions, unfulfilled promises, and low pay they were faced with deportation after a brief stint in a Dubai jail cell.
Last week, the NYU Coalition for Fair Labor and several NYU academic departments hosted a panel called “Who Enjoys Human Rights in Abu Dhabi?” to discuss the release of the HRW’s report. An independent journalist, two members of the HRW, and a Gallatin faculty member and human rights lawyer all provided insight into the state of the laborers and laid suggestions for NYU’s future course of action. Sarah Whitson of the Human Rights Watch noted that NYU regarded the dissemination of these findings of abuse in the HRW report, as well as in a highly publicized New York Times article among others, to be a PR crisis more than anything else. NYU spent millions, according to Whitson, to cover up and erase the bad press and degrading claims.
This money could have easily been spent to quell the demands of the laborers: assuaging their short-term requests, as well as ensuring no future violations.
Hopes for unbiased and genuine attempts at monitoring the conditions of laborers on the projects on Saadiyat Island have been crushed, as the governmental agency behind them, Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), hired PriceWaterhouseCoopers as its compliance monitor. Vasuki Nesiah, NYU faculty and human rights lawyer, spoke to the corporatization of state regulatory mechanisms and to the creation of an abusive environment by the very organizations that should be scrutinized are setting the standards.
The HRW’s report comes in tandem ironically, albeit unintentionally, with the launch of Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at NYU Law. It is an obviously positive contribution to an already established law school and here is much scholarship and research to be had on the vast field of human rights, especially by those who have a passion for the subject. I can only hope that with a mission statement that pledges to “deepen engagement between scholars and those beyond academia – practitioners, law makers, diplomats, nongovernmental organizations, and international institutions” the Institute understands the critical need to involve themselves in this process. There is abundant and necessary opportunity to forge these connections outside of the classroom, only amplified by the very fact that NYU classrooms on Saadiyat Island have been built by migrant laborers under exploitative conditions and on unjustifiable hours. In the name of expansion and education, (both legitimate pursuits if handled without the influence of corporate style management and acquisition, an area of expertise of Board of Trustee Chairman Marty Lipton) NYU has commissioned a large-scale abuse of labor rights, decried by NYU students, staff, and observers at large. The launch is representative of a larger and almost clinical divide between theory and application. The large absence of human rights protection for the laborers behind NYU’s stunning Abu Dhabi campus should be made tangible, as human rights litigation aims to do. The Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights can be a potential step towards raising and addressing critical questions about abuse on our own campus, even if more than 6842 miles away.
- Sabine Teyssier