NYU Must Claim Responsibility For Labor Conditions In Abu Dhabi

Al Mubarak and Sexton.

In the wake of reports that NYU Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island campus was built by systematically maltreated workers, NYU has systematically attempted to distance itself from taking responsibility for the abuses themselves, outsourcing the blame to the contracting companies supposedly under the jurisdiction of the UAE government, as well as to companies in charge of supervising the labor itself.

Two days ago, the Times reported that in a memo to NYU’s trustees (many of whom are Wall Street heavyweights), Sexton asserted that the Saadiyat campus “was built with the construction contractors working for the Abu Dhabi development entity building it, not directly for N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi itself (unlike the operational contracts for providing food, transportation, public safety, etc.)”

In response to the Times’ initial report of abuse, President Sexton emailed a statement to the entire NYU listserv which stated that “with regards to those men and women working on assignments directly contracted to NYU Abu Dhabi…there have been no questions raised about compliance with the high standards we set.”

In his own statement to NYU Local, university representative John Beckman said that “the Saadiyat Island campus was a ‘turnkey’ project that was built for us; contracts for building the campus were not under NYU’s direct jurisdiction, although all were subject to the same labor standards.”

As it turns out, these assertions are not entirely true. The Times revealed that the Mubadala Development Company, the general contractor who oversaw the Saadiyat campus’ construction, is in fact headed by an NYU trustee named Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak. Mubarak also acts as chairman of Abu Dhabi’s governing executive council – he had an integral role in facilitating the government’s $50 million donation to NYU as incentive for building their new intellectual capital in the Emirates.

Last Sunday, President Bill Clinton spoke at NYU Abu Dhabi’s first-ever commencement ceremony and addressed the controversy swirling with the Emirati sand around the brand-new campus. In his speech Clinton promised transparency in NYU’s revision of its conduct, saying that “there is no question that NYU has followed its policies in respect to the people it directly hired.” Citing NYU President John Sexton’s assertion that an imperfect world necessitates an obligation to do better, Clinton said that “none of us can ever afford to live in denial.”

Mott MacDonald, the engineering firm tasked with monitoring the NYU workers’ situation, has had a hand in a vast amount of large-scale projects in the Emirates over a timeline spanning 50 years. The firm’s latest report failed to mention any of the worker’s complaints.

Given Mott MacDonald’s failure, as well as the many millions that NYU’s invested into global portal campuses, swanky housing for professors, bonuses for departing faculty and gobbling up the isle of Manhattan, denial appears to be perfectly affordable. NYU seems to be coming close to resembling an international corporation. Meanwhile, the United States’ total outstanding student loans have reached $1.1 trillion dollars.

On Sunday I was sitting at my parent’s home in Massachusetts, surrounded by a semester’s worth of just-hauled luggage and scrolling through my Instagram feed. I have a few friends who’re NYU-AD students; I watched as the “likes” racked up on their snapshots of billowing white tents, glass-walled garden oases and beautiful boulevards lined with velvet-roped barriers in NYU’s distinctive violet hue.

Most of us are away from NYU for the summer, working hard at day jobs and internships or else lounging under the sun with friends, enjoying a well-deserved break. The glimmering Saadiyat campus is complete and ready to welcome eager students in droves. But as the layers of NYU’s bureaucratic glad-handing and dishonesty are peeled away, it’s essential that we as students continue to pay attention, remain vigilant and make forward strides towards change.

After all, denial is easy. Denial allowed the people who run our school to toy with smoke and mirrors while thousands of miles away, blood was spilled and livelihoods were destroyed for the sake of the education of NYU students. Denial comes at a cost too large to bear.

Update: In an email to NYU Local today, John Beckman provided additional information regarding the university’s response:

As we have said, we take the issues the Times raised in story very seriously, and the Times’ findings, if correct as reported, are troubling and unacceptable.  But let’s be clear about the history here.  In setting the labor standards we did (and here), NYU and its Abu Dhabi partners did something unprecedented; even HRW praised the steps we took, and one could reasonably draw the inference that the steps we took had an influence on other western institutions in Abu Dhabi and the commitments they subsequently made.

It would have been inconceivable for there to be perfect compliance with these standards on a project this huge — 21 buildings were built for the NYU Abu Dhabi campus — whether in Abu Dhabi or anywhere else, and that why we put a compliance monitoring system in place: to identify the instances of non-compliance, and take the appropriate action to remedy them.

Regarding the university’s next steps, Beckman wrote:
As to what we are doing going forward: both NYU and its Abu Dhabi partners have committed to investigating vigorously the issues the Times has raised and reporting the findings transparently.  That’s how one finds out more, and how one draws lessons for the future.  If you’re asking about the specifics of the investigation, I don’t have any additional details yet.

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