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The Exploitation University

New York University’s labor record epitomizes everything wrong with the neoliberal university.

Workers at an NYU Abu Dhabi construction site. Sergey Ponomarev / New York Times

A report released last month describes repeated labor violations during the construction of New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, including a de facto exemption policy that left roughly one-third of its builders unprotected from conditions of forced labor. And while the university denies any knowledge of the policy, one of its corporate architects is sitting on NYU’s Board of Trustees.

NYU commissioned the report last June in response to demands from campus groups and reports from international watchdog agencies, hiring the private investigation firm Nardello & Co. to examine alleged labor rights abuses during the construction of NYU facilities on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island.

Since reports of labor abuse first surfaced, NYU has repeatedly responded to student and faculty organizers by instructing them to await the results of the Nardello investigation, ignoring a February report from Human Rights Watch that reaffirmed the mistreatment of construction workers on NYU worksites.

Last month, long after its promised released date, the Nardello report was finally published. And try as it might to deflect responsibility away from NYU, its findings don’t look good for the university.

Among the most damning of the allegations: the sudden deportation in 2013 of 250 striking migrant workers, many of whom were builders contracted for work on the NYU facility. The university still hasn’t admitted any responsibility for this mass expulsion, nor has it offered any compensation to the deported workers.

The seventy-two page report details a slew of broken promises and worker abuses. NYU failed to reimburse recruitment fees for any of its thirty thousand migrant construction workers, despite repeated promises to do so. Contractors seized and held workers’ passports, a practice almost unanimously condemned by human rights organizations. And striking workers were still deported en masse, a spectacular human rights violation for which NYU has yet to acknowledge any responsibility.

But the most damning revelation of the report is that NYU’s Statement of Labor Values failed to protect more than ten thousand workers — about a third of the workforce that built NYU–Abu Dhabi — from conditions of forced labor. The report describes a de facto exemption policy that didn’t just allow, but encouraged many subcontractors to sidestep labor standards.

NYU President John Sexton claims to have had no knowledge of this policy, writing in an email to the NYU community that “neither we nor [Emirati state enterprise and NYU partner] Tamkeen knew about the exemption policy or how widely it was being applied.” He admits, parenthetically, that “roughly one-third of the workers — about ten thousand people — worked for contractors deemed exempt from the rules.”

Sexton goes on to describe the limited restitution measures the university plans to take, including launching a research initiative into international recruitment fees and providing back pay to workers excluded from NYU’s $217 minimum monthly rate.

NYU’s pledge to provide retroactive payment to some workers is welcome, if wholly inadequate given the harsh conditions workers suffered. But the protests by President Sexton and other NYU officials that they were unaware of the exemption policy sound dubious, considering one of the policy’s major beneficiaries — Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, the CEO of Mubadala, an Emirati construction contractor — is on the NYU Board of Trustees.

NYU hired Mubadala Real Estate and Infrastructure, a state-owned real estate development company, to oversee the construction of its Saadiyat Island campus. The Nardello report clearly charges Mubadala — along with fellow developers EC Harris and AF Carillion — with developing the exemption policy that excused many subcontractors from abiding by basic labor standards.

The report also references correspondence between EC Harris, AF Carillion, and Mubadala that “refers to NYU . . . some NYU employees interviewed by the investigators demonstrated partial knowledge of the exemption policy.

NYU and its government partners appear to have erected an oversight system in which contractors monitored their own compliance with labor standards. Although Mott MacDonald Ltd. was tasked with overseeing compliance with NYU’s Statement of Labor Values, the firm managed to miss the exclusion of ten thousand subcontracted workers, a failure the Nardello report attributes to a decentralized oversight system. Evidently, AF Carillion, Mubadala, and EC Harris were responsible for overseeing the adherence of their own subcontractors, thereby preserving the compliance gap that left one-third of the workforce uncovered.

BK Gulf, another major construction contractor on the NYU project, was also able to exploit this loophole, despite the ostensible oversight of Mott MacDonald. Though not exempted from the Statement of Labor Values, Nardello reports “BK Gulf used more than 50 subcontractors on the project, most of whom were deemed exempt from compliance.” As many as eight thousand subcontracted BK Gulf workers may have been deliberately excluded from NYU’s labor standards, although the Nardello report admits that it has no way of determining precise numbers due to BK Gulf’s record-keeping.

BK Gulf is no stranger to labor disputes in Abu Dhabi. The British-owned multinational was the target of the 2013 strike that resulted in the arrest and deportation of 250 workers. NYU has stayed conspicuously silent about this work stoppage, and Mott MacDonald failed to even report it. But the Nardello report offers some insight.

Citing numbers provided by BK Gulf management, Nardello & Co. reports that four thousand workers participated in the strike, including about 1,500 workers from the NYU site. After management threatened to dismiss the strikers, about one thousand workers agreed to return to work. Of those remaining on strike, 250 were deported.

The Nardello report emphasizes that 75 percent of the deported workers came from the NYU worksite, despite NYU workers representing less than 40 percent of the strikers. The report admits it cannot account for this fact. But to readers familiar with labor disputes, the uneven proportion suggests that the strike leadership came from the NYU workforce, thereby making NYU workers specific targets for deportation.

This conclusion is further supported by management’s own admission that the labor action began on the NYU worksite, and was motivated in part by the transfer of workers away from the NYU project, a move that included a 40 percent pay cut. The New York Times reported on other grievances that contributed to the decision to strike, including NYU’s failure to reimburse recruitment fees, the seizure of passports, and forced overtime.

The Nardello report also mentions a second strike against another subcontractor on the NYU project, Al Reyami. After a one-day strike of 145 workers in June 2012, Al Reyami allowed workers to elect four delegates to represent worker grievances in negotiations with management. All four elected representatives were fired and the other strikers were threatened with similar retaliation, ending the work stoppage.

The report from Nardello & Co. acknowledges that this behavior constitutes a flagrant violation of NYU’s Statement of Labor Values, which forbids such retaliation. But NYU has yet to hold Al Reyami responsible, apparently accepting their flimsy excuse that the four elected strike leaders were fired for unsatisfactory work performance.

NYU is fond of boasting of its status as a Global Network University, describing itself as “a private university in the public service,” with satellite campuses scattered throughout the globe. NYU–Abu Dhabi is the flagship overseas campus in an international network that includes facilities in sixteen other cities.

Administrators like Sexton and William Berkley, a student debt baron who is the incoming chairman of the board of trustees, apparently see no conflict between the university’s educational mission and its partnership with an oligarchic state that criminalizes labor rights and punishes worker action with deportation. But many students and faculty find themselves unable to reconcile NYU’s academic mission with the administration’s neoliberal agenda.

NYU graduate worker Daniel Aldana Cohen recently coined the term “campus-washing” to describe the way institutions like NYU operate, using the prestige and moral infallibility of higher education to obscure the business engines that drive their operations. NYU — which, in Cohen’s estimation, is effectively a multinational real-estate enterprise, engineered for market growth and oriented toward executive bonus-granting — does its best to segregate the “sacred educational space” from the “profane space of tawdry corporate operations,” thereby sidestepping criticisms of unethical business practice.

But organized blocs of students and workers — like NYU’s GSOC-UAW, which just negotiated the country’s first contract between a graduate worker union and a private university since its last contract expired in 2005 — threaten that separation. And in doing so, they shed light on the neoliberalism that defines NYU’s institutional behavior.

In the months prior to the release of the report, a coalition of student and faculty activists — including members of Law Students for Economic Justice, the Coalition for Fair Labor, and the Student & Labor Action Movement — organized a series of escalating actions, pressuring NYU administrators to amend the Statement of Labor Values to include strike protections, to compensate deported workers, and to release a confidential code of conduct governing the behavior of subcontractors contracted for work on NYU sites.

These actions included letter deliveries, teach-ins, and a sit-in at NYU’s main administrative office. In a statement responding to the Nardello report, this coalition reaffirmed its commitment to winning compensation for deported workers and holding NYU accountable for its history of labor abuse in Abu Dhabi.

In recent years, Gulf State monarchies have rightfully been scrutinized for exploiting migrant labor in the construction of their nouveau riche dreamworlds. But there has been a notable lack of scrutiny towards the US and European cultural institutions that eagerly partner with these repressive Gulf regimes.

Cornell recently constructed a medical school in Qatar’s Education City, which also includes facilities from five other American institutions, including Carnegie Mellon and Georgetown. The Louvre and the Guggenheim are each constructing Saadiyat Island locations. And recent allegations of labor abuses at NYU’s Shanghai campus are uncomfortably redolent of the stories of worker mistreatment at NYU–Abu Dhabi.

While NYU’s recent pledge to take (limited) steps to rectify the labor violations described by Nardello & Co. is a positive development, it is grossly insufficient. NYU must pay reparations to deported workers and protect the fundamental right of its workers to organize. And students and faculty must continue to question NYU’s alliance with a state that deports striking workers and bars dissident NYU professors from entering the country.

By confirming the mistreatment of workers on Saadiyat Island, the Nardello report vindicates the work of campus activists and leaves NYU unable to deny its complicity in a pattern of human rights abuses. But the fight is far from won. These violations only came to light as a result of sustained pressure from campus activists, labor advocates, and workers on the ground.

And the repressive labor system that generates enormous profits for NYU while insulating the university and its partners from responsibility can only be brought down with even more dogged pressure from below.