x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

NYU and Abu Dhabi write joint charter for workers' rights

Strict rules for contractors hired to build Saadiyat campus over recruitment fees, hours, annual leave and passports.

An artist's rendering shows the forthcoming campus of the New York University in Abu Dhabi.
An artist's rendering shows the forthcoming campus of the New York University in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // New York University has demanded a sweeping set of rights for workers hired to build its Saadiyat Island campus. The university and its Abu Dhabi Government partner said workers must be allowed to keep their passports, receive 30 days annual leave and not be left indebted to recruiters.

Foreign employees must also receive medical insurance and an airline ticket home each year. Recruitment specialists said the demands were unrealistic, but the move was described by human rights activists as a "significant step" towards protecting workers. The university, which begins courses this autumn, said the rules would also apply to companies operating its temporary campus near the Corniche.

Construction of the permanent facility on Saadiyat starts this year. The opening is scheduled for 2014. Josh Taylor, a spokesman for the university, said the requirements were being imposed by the university and the Government, which is funding the campus. "We do not expect employees to [incur] any costs associated with the recruitment process", he said, adding that all recruitment costs must be reimbursed by the contractor.

Other conditions include: ? Employers must pay or reimburse fees for requirements such as visas and medical examinations; ? The maximum working hours will be eight hours, five days a week, or six days a week for construction jobs. Overtime is not compulsory and must be paid "at premium rates"; ? Wages will be paid on time by electronic transfer; ? In addition to 30 days leave, workers will receive 10 public holidays plus two additional days;

? Female staff will be entitled to maternity leave at full pay for up to 45 days; ? Employers will pay workers' travel expenses to the UAE and for their repatriation when they complete their employment, plus one trip home a year. While declining to say that companies could be dismissed, Mr Taylor said they would be under contractual obligation to comply. "From an enforcement perspective, we and our partners are highly committed to monitoring and requiring compliance," he said.

The Tourism Development and Investment Company, the overall developer of Saadiyat Island, said safeguards were already in place to ensure contractors complied with UAE law by, for example, paying workers on time. A unit within TDIC monitors compliance and has, according to the head of corporate communications, Bassem Terkawi, taken action when employers have held on to passports. However, he said the organisation complied with, rather than made, labour law so was focused on ensuring companies adhered to legal requirements.

However, David Burns, the director of human resources consulting at UHY Saxena, which provides recruitment consultancy services, described the conditions were described as "unrealistic". Mr Burns said workers were sometimes charged fees by several parties, and it would be difficult and expensive to reimburse them all. "It's not practical," he said. "You need to monitor and use ethical recruitment protocols to ensure these are kept to an acceptable level. While I welcome their statement, I think once they realise the costs involved, very little will happen."

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based lobby group, praised the "commitments" and called for fines against companies that broke them. The group has been critical of labour practices in the UAE, particularly the issue of workers arriving in the country heavily in debt to recruiters. Sarah Whitson, the Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said: "NYU Abu Dhabi's commitments should go a long way towards fixing the major source of labour abuse."

HRW has previously said that expatriate workers on Saadiyat typically pay $2,000 (Dh7,300) in recruitment fees. The rights group said NYU's move was "a significant step toward protecting migrant workers" and called on others to impose similar conditions. @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae