Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
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.
Immigrants account for 85 percent of the population in the U.A.E. Migrant construction workers can work 12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week.
Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
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.”
Construction workers can live as many as 15 men to a room. Space is so scarce that a dozen men can share a space of barely 200 square feet. One of New York University’s labor values states that contractors should not house more than four people in a bedroom.
Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
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.
Slide Show | The Luxurious Side of Abu Dhabi About 85 percent of the population of the United Arab Emirates are immigrants, with only 15 percent being Emiratis who enjoy a finer way of life.
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.
Immigrant workers shop for food and other supplies at the weekend market outside a labor camp in Abu Dhabi. Many South Asian laborers live in grim conditions to earn money to send back home to their families.
Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
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.
N.Y.U.’s construction at Saadiyat Island is now complete.
Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
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.
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.