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Workers on NYU's Abu Dhabi campus had their passports confiscated

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An investigation found that 10,000 workers weren't covered by the university's protections

Abu Dhabi Marina
Abu Dhabi Marina
Ghassan Tabet/Flickr

Last year, New York University came under fire for the treatment of laborers building its campus in the United Arab Emirates, a country where labor can look a lot like indentured servitude. In response, the university appointed an independent investigator, Nardello & Co. Its report is out today, and it found that approximately 10,000 workers who built the Abu Dhabi campus lacked the labor protections NYU had stipulated. Perhaps most disturbing, many workers, including those covered by NYU’s labor guidelines, had their passports taken and held by their employers, impeding the ability of the mostly foreign workforce to leave.

Many did not relinquish their passports voluntarily

NYU has faced criticism for its Abu Dhabi campus since it was first announced. In 2009, it issued a "statement of labor values" designed to give workers better protections than the norm in the UAE. But last year, The New York Times reported that conditions fell far short, with immigrant laborers saying that they'd been asked to pay recruitment fees, parted from their passports, crammed into crowded living conditions, and paid less than promised. Earlier this year, an NYU professor critical of the exploitation of migrant labor in the UAE was barred from entering the country.

Passport confiscation and recruitment fees are common tactics in the world of forced or coerced labor. In exchange for the promise of work abroad, workers pay fees that they then struggle to pay off; upon arriving, they then have their passports confiscated, preventing them from leaving. Human rights groups have criticized the UAE and other Gulf states for these practices for several years.

Common practice in the world of forced labor

The statement released by NYU alludes to the passport issue after saying that its protections didn’t cover many short-term subcontractors. These workers represented approximately one-third of the campus's 30,000 laborers, and NYU says it will compensate them so that their wages are in line with protected workers.

But NYU president John Sexton placed greater emphasis on the passport issue in an email sent to faculty and students. "Even for those construction workers who were covered by the standards, relatively few retained their passports," he wrote. "While many employees covered by the standards said they voluntarily agreed to have their employer hold their passports (and had access to them), such an arrangement conflicted with the publicly stated standard that employees must hold their passport."

In the report, Nardello & Co says that "more than a quarter" of the workers they interviewed who were covered by NYU’s labor guidelines "did not relinquish control of their passports voluntarily."

In his email, which is far more critical than the official statement, Sexton writes that "there were real lapses," particularly in the policy of allowing short-term subcontractors to be exempt from NYU’s labor policies. "Neither we nor [local partner] Tamkeen knew about the exemption policy or how widely it was being applied," Sexton writes.

"We acknowledge the lapses."

Though NYU’s policy was to reimburse any workers who paid recruitment fees, it says that it couldn’t verify that workers had paid fees for the NYU campus project and not a prior one. The university's statement ends by saying that the campus will launch a research project into recruitment fees.

The email from Sexton ends on a more apologetic note. "We acknowledge the lapses, will learn from them, and will attempt to rectify them," Sexton wrote. "I hope our experience on this project can be a useful lesson not just for NYU but for others, too. For that reason, we think the open publication of this report, with its frank findings, is a valuable, good faith start on that process."