Human Rights Violations of NYU Abu Dhabi and the Kafala System
by Sabrina Illiano
In 2014, the NYU Abu Dhabi campus was completed as part of former NYU president John Sexton’s global expansion initiative. The university will soon be joined on Saadiyat Island - ‘Happiness Island’ in English - by outposts of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums, in keeping with the island’s intention of becoming a cultural center of Abu Dhabi. Supporters of Sexton’s initiative praise the move, noting the significance of an American university providing a full liberal-arts education in a monarchical country with a history of violating fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression.
However, behind the shiny veneer of NYU Abu Dhabi’s impressive new campus lie the deeply troubling circumstances of its construction. Although the contractors hired by NYU were supposedly obligated by the university to adhere to certain standards regarding the treatment of their workers, reports from migrant workers involved in the project suggest that these obligations were not met. Numerous migrant workers, most of whom were from Southeast Asia, reported receiving significantly lower wages than they were promised, being housed in accommodation that was overcrowded and poorly maintained, having their passports confiscated, and being denied reimbursement for recruitment fees that left them in debt. When employees of BK Gulf went on strike in October of 2013 to protest their mistreatment, many of them were detained and deported by the UAE government.
According to the NYU Abu Dhabi website, “NYU and its Abu Dhabi partners also established a set of labor standards, built upon UAE law and market-leading practices, designed to ensure that the institution’s commitment would extend to those who were building and maintaining the University’s facilities.” A report on migrant worker’s rights on Saadiyat Island released by Human Rights Watch suggested that the university and museum foundations were actually turning a blind eye to abuses perpetuated by the contracting companies. Following the October strike, NYU weakly asserted that it could not control the labor laws of another country but that it would initiate measures to make financial reparations to workers who had been wronged. Critics of the university’s response have argued that the reparative efforts were inadequate and that steps should have been taken to more strictly enforce the labor standards supposedly set forth at the beginning of the project.
NYU Professor Dr. Allen Keller, who teaches in the fields of bioethics, health, and human rights and directs the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, spoke about the controversy. He noted that in evaluating the situation in hindsight, emphasis should be placed on the university’s responses to the issue of worker’s rights and labor regulation in the UAE; “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me,” he said of the university’s future relationship with the government of Abu Dhabi. The question remains though, to what extent can the university claim ignorance to the potential for labor violations when it initiated the NYU Abu Dhabi project?
In the majority of Middle Eastern countries, migrant labor is regulated by a sponsorship system known as “kafala.” Kafala confers a set of legal responsibilities onto the employer regarding their foreign employees, and has long been the subject of human rights criticism for its exploitative nature. Under kafala systems, workers are denied the ability to change employers or quit their jobs without the permission of their current employer; if they do so without this permission, their residency status may be revoked and they can be deported. Many employers also take the passports of their employees and hold them for the duration of the contract, a coercive technique which binds workers to the company and gives employers a significant degree of leverage. Though several states, including the UAE, have taken small steps towards reforming the kafala system, these reforms have thus far proved largely superficial, as exploitative practices remain the norm. Because of the large degree of control that kafala gives the employer, these systems produce a harmful relationship between the employer and employee in which the employee has essentially no power to demand the enforcement of their rights.
Foreign migrant workers make up a large proportion of the population in the Middle East; millions of men and women travel every year from their home countries to work as construction or agricultural laborers, domestic workers, and as professionals. While all are vulnerable to the kafala systems, domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women, are a particularly at-risk group. These women are frequently sequestered into the private homes of their employers, where the law may feel like a remote, untouchable force. Their passports are confiscated, they are denied their wages, and they often do not speak the dominant language of the country; coupled with the fact that their work is confined to the home, this context often renders them largely invisible to the regulations that are supposed to protect them and enforce their rights. Even as domestic workers attempt to speak out against their abuses, there are very few resources available to help support their efforts.
Unique in the Middle East is Jordan, the only country in the region where laws were implemented in 2008 specifically regarding the labor of domestic workers. Though these laws have yet to promote substantive change within the country, as told by a Human Rights Watch report in 2011, their presence has empowered non-profit organizations to take more direct action to enforce the rights of migrant domestic workers. Human rights groups like the Adaleh Center offer legal advice to domestic workers, encouraging them to speak out against their abuse and informing them on how to claim the rights and protections provided by Jordan’s formal laws. The center has also been responsible for a Domestic Worker’s Solidarity Network, which brings together migrant domestic workers to discuss their situations and offers a respite from the isolation of domestic work. While it remains to be seen whether or not these efforts will promote a long-term culture of labor rights in Jordan, there is certainly the potential for progress as migrant domestic workers become an increasingly agential force.
Though countries in the Middle East may be making strides towards stronger enforcement of labor rights for migrant workers, the situation remains critical. The labor rights of migrants is a global concern, although the unique nature of kafala and the regional lack of available resources for seeking protection and redress requires particular attention. Formal reforms to the widely-used kafala systems are not sufficient to produce substantive change, as exploitative employer practices are still rampant in all industries which contract foreign migrant labor. Looking forward, NYU’s relationship with Abu Dhabi should strongly consider whether the UAE government can demonstrate significant progress in enforcing adequate labor regulations for migrant workers; excuses of ignorance tend not to be effective the second time around.