NYU Students Protest in Library Against Workers’ Rights Violations on NYU Abu Dhabi Campus

Around 20 or so New York University students organized a sit-in protest in their library to protest what they describe as construction workers’ rights violations on NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. The protest lasted around 30 minutes on Monday afternoon.

The chant “no justice, no peace” echoed throughout the library’s 12 floors. Students peered up at the echoing, unseen voices from the ground level. Others went up to see what the noise was about. One student left the protest area, but voiced his support saying “keep on fighting.”

The NYU Abu Dhabi Justice Coalition sent an email to Al Bloom, the Vice Chancellor of Abu Dhabi, on Feb. 17 asking for a meeting with administration.

Bloom’s response on March 12 was a three paragraph email saying “we’re working on it, hang tight,” said Astha Sharma Pokharel, NYU law student involved in the Law Students for Economic Justice, one of the several clubs involved with the coalition.

Bloom’s email says the allegations in the Human Rights Watch report in February 2015 are “not new developments,” and with the construction of the campus complete, “we continue to build  upon our successful track record with our operational workers to ensure that they are treated in accordance with our labor standards and the values of our community.”

The coalition’s annotated version of the email can be seen here.

The first Human Rights Watch report on NYU Abu Dhabi working conditions was in 2009. Then came the New York Times’ report and the Guardian’s report. These reports detail working conditions in which workers must pay recruitment fees that add up to a year’s salary, little to no healthcare, withholding their passports, and harassment.

There is “absolutely no discussion” as to what being a ‘Global Network University’ means “politically and socially,” said Sharma Pokharel. This cause resonates personally for Sharma Pokharel because she is from Nepal, and many of the campus construction workers were South Asian.

NYU’s administrators say they are an academic community, but “the way they act makes it seem more like a hierarchy,” she added.

The response from Bloom sparked the library protest where protesters asked for an hour long meeting that would included NYU President John Sexton and Martin Lipton, Chair of NYU Board of Trustees, in addition to Bloom.

The protesters said they were told nobody was in the office because of the holidays.

Passover and Easter were over the weekend, but students were confused as to why nobody would be in the office to speak with them on a Monday afternoon.

“What’s the holiday today, Monday?” said Leo Gertner, second year law student at NYU. A “’private university in the public service’ should be less tone deaf to what public service means and, at the very least, this means respecting workers’ rights,” he said.

The running joke among coalition members is that they must contact the secretary of the secretary of John Sexton to get a meeting scheduled. Robert Ascherman said he has been “trying to speak with [John Sexton] for three years.” Asherman is an undergraduate in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and member of the Student Labor Action Movement at NYU.

NYU spokesman John Beckman wrote in an email that “Nardello & Co., an international investigation firm, was appointed to independently evaluate these allegations. We await their findings and will have more to say at that time.”

Some claim there is a conflict of interest with the Board of Trustees and the company.

One of the NYU Board of Trustee members, Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, has connections with the Abu Dhabi’s government-run Mubadala Development Company, responsible for building the campus, said a New York Times Dealbook column. In addition, Al Mubarak has an affiliation with Tamkeen, the Abu Dhabi agency who hired Nardello & Co., according to students a part of the coalition as well as a Buzzfeed report.

Despite multiple news articles regarding the troubling workers’ conditions, NYU administration awaits findings from the investigation firm.

The investigation’s results were supposed to be published by the end of 2014, according to a press release on NYU Abu Dhabi’s website last June. Four months into 2015, there are still no results. In mid-March this year, Nardello & Co., said the report would be completed in about a month, according to a New York Times report.

Outside the library on Monday, there was a member of the coalition who called on people to sign NYU Abu Dhabi Justice Coalition’s latest petition, which was launched in March and has over 600 supporters as of April 7.

The petition which members of the coalition have sent to the administration, calls to “justly compensate the NYUAD construction workers who were jailed and deported” after striking, recognize their “right to strike,” “publically disclose” the labor standards code, among other requests.

“[NYU] needs to be held accountable,” said Kristina Bogas, an undergraduate student in the College of Arts and Science at NYU. She first became aware of the abuses after spending five months on the Abu Dhabi campus in fall 2013 and reading the Guardian’s report in late 2013.

After returning to the New York campus, Bogas helped to revive the coalition and launch their first petition last May. Since then, attempting to schedule meetings with administration has been repeatedly stalled, according to the protesters.

Construction has been completed on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus since last spring, but NYU should not get the “jail out of free card” just because construction is finished, said Bogas.

While the work these students have done is ongoing, a recent development has directly affected NYU professor Andrew Ross, who has been barred from traveling to the U.A.E. Ross has been outspoken about the migrant labor workers’ conditions and had intended to do research there over spring break.

The alleged workers’ rights violations at Abu Dhabi is one of many campaigns students and faculty care about, but at the root of the issue is accessibility to the administrators.

“If this administration wants to be accessible, they would place themselves on the first floor of the [NYU Kimmel Center for University Life] or [Elmer Holmes Bobst Library]” instead of the 11th and 12th floors of the library, said Ascherman.

Here is The Guardian’s report on NYU’s sit-in. 

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