In a rush to establish outposts in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, venerable American institutions, including New York University and the Guggenheim Museum of Art, are not addressing concerns about migrant labor, human rights advocates say.
NYU, which will have the first American comprehensive liberal arts school campus in the Middle East, and a Frank Gehry-designed branch of the Guggenheim Museum are some of the big names that have buildings in the works on the developing Saadiyat Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi and which are of concern to activists.
"We don't believe that they are doing nearly enough to avoid the exploitation of workers in their own projects," said Human Rights Watch's Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the organization's Middle East and North Africa division. She said that the institutions have not made public commitments to ensuring that its construction workers are not exploited.
Whitson says that while the UAE government needs to investigate, prosecute and penalize contactors that break the nation's labor laws, these organizations need to take responsibility themselves. These measures, she said, should include reimbursing workers who are found to have paid an illegal recruiting fee (one of the most common abuses that can total as much as $3000), ceasing dealings with contractors who use recruiters who charge such fees, ensuring that housing and work sites are safe and that health and safety records are kept, and guaranteeing that workers' passports are not confiscated and that monthly wages are paid regularly.
"It should be no more acceptable to build on the backs of exploited migrant workers than it is to use child labor," said Whitson.
ABCNews.com contacted the institutions identified by HRW for comment.
After repeated request for comment, NYU responded late Friday by saying "the Executive Affairs Authority of Abu Dhabi, through its own entity, will hire the developers and contractors to build the NYUAD Campus on Saadiyat Island. To date, such an entity has not been formed and work has not begun on the Island for NYUAD."
NYU also said it is "committed to the values of fairness, dignity and respect for every individual who engages in work on behalf of building the NYUAD Campus on Saadiyat Island."
The issue has been raised on the Manhattan campus, with the Coalition for Fair Labor at NYU saying that NYU Abu Dhabi "risks undermining the importance of labor rights …and exacerbating migrant labor exploitation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)."
The coalition also collected signatures to urge the university to "sign – and insist its UAE partners abide by – the Fair Labor Code of Conduct, which governs workplace relationships with all subcontractors involved in construction and day-to-day operations of the campus."
NYU junior Claire Lewis, a member of the coalition and of the campus chapter of Students Creating Radical Change, said she's one of many who have been asking the university for proof that it is addressing the issue. She says they've had no response.
"I want something contractually that says workers rights will be protected at a place that has my university's name on it," Lewis said.
The Guggenheim Museum did not offer comment, and a representative for Frank Gehry declined to discuss the issue.