worse than $100,000 in student loans
The NYT reported on Sunday about horrid conditions among the 6,000 construction workers, mostly migrants, responsible for building a new campus at NYU Abu Dhabi. According to the Times,
Virtually every one said he had to pay recruitment fees of up to a year’s wages to get his job and had never been reimbursed. N.Y.U.’s list of labor values said that contractors are supposed to pay back all such fees. Most of the men described having to work 11 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, just to earn close to what they had originally been promised, despite a provision in the labor statement that overtime should be voluntary.
The men said they were not allowed to hold onto their passports, in spite of promises to the contrary. And the experiences of the BK Gulf strikers, a half dozen of whom were reached by The Times in their home countries, stand in contrast to the standard that all workers should have the right to redress labor disputes without “harassment, intimidation, or retaliation.”
Some men lived in squalor, 15 men to a room. The university said there should be no more than four.
“Not happy,” Munawar, a painter from Bangladesh who only gave one name declared, speaking in limited English. Back home, he said, they have lives, families. “Come here,” he concluded, “not happy.”
News about harsh labor conditions in the UAE is nothing new. But news that NYU is supporting it raises a whole new set of questions.
It looks like international branch campuses are here to stay. Major American and European universities realize that they have become not just educational institutions but “global brands.” NYU has perhaps gone farthest on this front, calling itself the “Global Network University,” but there are now more than 200 such campuses, with the center of gravity shifting from the Middle East to Asia.
These campuses raise a number of issues — about academic freedom, educational quality, and simple economic payoff. But what, outside of pulling a William F. Buckley and standing athwart history, yelling Stop, should those of us who care about universities do, when news like this comes along?
Certainly we should be holding NYU’s feet to the fire on this and other issues. The administration has apologized for the “troubling and unacceptable” abuses, but its plan “to try to correct, to the extent still possible, any lapses in compliance” sounds…well, less than compelling.
But it is hard to find points of leverage when the incentives for universities to look the other way — not just on this but on a whole host of issues — are so great. My thought at the moment: challenging universities’ tax-exempt status or access to federal aid are the ways to really get their attention.