What was once the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is now a science building at New York University. A little more than a century ago 500 immigrants sewed blouses in the building on three crowded floors, six days a week. As their shift ended one Saturday afternoon in 1911, a fire at the factory trapped the garment workers and caused many others to jump to their deaths. In one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the United States, 146 died and 70 were injured.
Thankfully, the UAE has not experienced a calamity of that magnitude. But like New York City at the beginning of the 20th century, Abu Dhabi and Dubai have attracted migrant labour from all over the world. While conditions for these workers have improved, many laws introduced to protect their rights have proved difficult to enforce. As we report today, NYU Abu Dhabi and its partner, the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi, have introduced a set of protections for workers in support of "their shared commitment to protecting the rights of the men and women who will build and operate the campus". These protections include that employers cover or reimburse employees for fees involved in their recruitment. Workers will be allowed to keep their own passports, will be paid for voluntary overtime hours, and have paid leave and vacation.
Many of these laws are already on the books; the difficult challenge is how to enforce them more evenly. The globalisation and complexity of the labour market often require that enforcement takes place far beyond the borders of the UAE, where the vast majority of labourers are recruited. And finding a way to secure the passports of labourers is important, as theft is rampant in some labour accommodations.
NYU-Abu Dhabi and the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi are not necessarily setting new standards but expressing a firm commitment to enforce many of those that already exist. Since laws are only as good as their enforcement, this is a vital effort, not just for the campus of NYU-Abu Dhabi but for the entire labour market. Not only is the promise of NYU-Abu Dhabi found in what it can offer to its students, but hopefully its construction will be a greater education for the entire country. If they can navigate the complexities of the global labour market and migration to protect workers' rights, the entire region can learn from what has been built.