NYU adds worker rights rules to Abu Dhabi contract

New York– Workers involved in building and operating New York University’s Middle East campus in Abu Dhabi must have protections in areas such as how often they are paid and how many hours they can work in a week, the university announced Wednesday in a move that human rights advocates hope reverberates around the region.

"Since we and our Abu Dhabi partners announced the creation of NYU Abu Dhabi in the fall of 2007, we have made clear our shared commitment to protecting the rights of the men and women who will build and operate our campus," NYU spokesman Josh Taylor told The Associated Press from Abu Dhabi.

Construction on the degree-granting campus is scheduled to start later this year. Abu Dhabi is the name of both the capital city of the United Arab Emirates and the largest of the seven individual emirates that make up the country. The city is one of the richest in the world.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other groups have previously called attention to a range of labor complaints in the Emirates as the boomtowns of Dubai and Abu Dhabi rose from the desert, including poor living conditions and the vast control companies have over the lives of their mostly South Asian workers.

Among the provisions announced Wednesday are requirements that employers cover or reimburse employees for any fees involved in the recruitment process and not take money out of workers’ pay; that workers are allowed to hold on to personal documents like passports; that overtime is voluntary and must be paid, and that workers are entitled to vacation and paid holidays.

While HRW acknowledges that the Emirates government had addressed some of laborers’ grievances in recent years, such as efforts to improve living conditions and ensure the timely payment of wages, abuses continue.

In its annual report, released last week in Dubai, the group said reforms have failed to address the fundamental sources of worker exploitation, such as unlawful recruiting fees and timely wages and a sponsorship system that gives an employer almost complete power over his workers.

The Emirates authorities have rejected criticism saying that the government has taken significant steps over the past few years to boost rights and protection for laborers.

NYU’s actions are "a huge step forward," said Sarah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch.

"It’s significant progress in terms of recognizing that labor protections are needed and specific contractual agreements are the only way to do that," she said.

"We absolutely see this as a precedent-setting move."

The NYU campus is being built on Saadiyat Island, along with branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums. Whitson said she hoped the steps taken by NYU would be mirrored by the museums. A call to the Guggenheim seeking comment Wednesday was not returned.

Whitson did express some concern about how NYU would monitor companies for compliance, and what kind of penalties would be levied against those violating the requirements. She also said that while it was a good beginning, there was still work to be done, in areas like setting minimum wages and allowing collective bargaining.

Taylor said NYU and its partners were committed to enforcing the provisions, and that details on how that would be done were still being worked out but would be in place before construction starts.

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