DUBAI - New York University has imposed strict labor standards for construction of its campus in the United Arab Emirates, where critics say migrant worker conditions are sometimes tantamount to forced labor.
NYU, which will start building its Abu Dhabi campus this year, said it agreed with its Emirati government partners to require contractors to limit work hours, let workers keep their passports, and absorb recruitment costs often born by laborers.
From day one, it was clear that we and our Abu Dhabi partners had a shared vision for the creation of a remarkable new liberal arts college, NYU Abu Dhabi spokesman Josh Taylor told Reuters in an emailed statement.
Our commitment to ensuring the rights of those who will build and operate our campus is an essential component of that shared vision, he added.
The move comes as the UAE is trying to repel criticism over treatment of foreign laborers sometimes trapped into paying job recruitment fees that can leave them deep in debt while their passports are held by employers.
NYU Abu Dhabi's commitments should go a long way toward fixing the major sources of labor abuse, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
These provisions set a new minimum standard so that companies will no longer be able to treat worker abuse as a necessary part of doing business in the UAE, she added.
The Gulf Arab country, where foreigners outnumber nationals, has built itself into a regional business and tourism hub using cheap foreign labor, many from the Indian subcontinent.
UAE officials, who say criticism of labor conditions is exaggerated, stress the country has already taken steps to improve conditions. In June, the government outlined standards for workers' housing, but employers have five years to comply.
NYU is building its campus on Saadiyat Island, a planned $27 billion art and culture hub off the Abu Dhabi coast that will house a branch of the Paris Louvre museum and New York's Guggenheim.
NYU said laborers involved in building its campus would work no more than 40 hours a week, with the exception of construction workers who could work a 6-day work week of 8-hour shifts. Overtime would be voluntary.
The rules would also prohibit contractors from seeking employment bans on workers who sought to change jobs, a common practice in some sectors in the UAE. Employees would also be provided health insurance and be paid via bank transfer.
Human Rights Watch has previously accused the United Arab Emirates of exploiting thousands of Asian workers hired to build museums and art galleries on the showcase island. But last month it said the Emirates had made progress on workers' rights.
The UAE Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), of which Saadiyat Island is a flagship development, has said special care was being taken over workers' welfare.
A labor ministry official said last year that as well as encouraging model housing for workers, the UAE would set up labor courts and allow workers to switch jobs if employers delay wages by two months.
In recent years, workers have gone on strike over late payment of wages. Workers can now report delayed salaries through a Ministry of Labor website.
Human Rights Watch, while welcoming the steps by NYU and its partners, said it was concerned because the measures did not include a guaranteed minimum wage nor clear provisions for penalties or independent monitoring of compliance.
Without clear penalties, such as treble damages and termination of the contract, these requirements will have no teeth, HRW's Whitson said.
NYU Abu Dhabi spokesman Taylor said the university was committed to monitoring and enforcing compliance, and details of that would be finalized before construction starts.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)