ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Labor rights’ campaigners are concerned the Abu Dhabi government is cracking down on free expression after a U.S. professor researching migrant labor conditions was barred from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
New York University (NYU) professor Andrew Ross, who researches workers’ rights, was prohibited from boarding a flight to Abu Dhabi last Saturday to visit a branch campus of his own university that opened there in 2010.
The entry ban has sparked debate about how big name institutions establishing operations in the oil-rich Gulf states should handle attempts to restrict the activities or public opinions of their staff.
Ross has been an outspoken opponent of the use of underpaid and poorly treated migrant laborers to build NYU’s campus and other international institutions in the Gulf where there are branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums.
Migrants account for more than 80 percent of the UAE’s population of about 8 million, according to U.N. estimates, with temporary workers, predominately from South Asia, making up the vast majority of private sector employees.
Human rights groups and labor unions have raised concerns that these buildings were constructed by workers legally bonded to their employers.
Sharan Burrow, president of the International Trade Union Confederation, calls the situation “modern slavery”.
“There is a conspiracy of silence that these (Gulf countries) are slave states,” Burrow, whose group says it represents 176 million workers worldwide, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Officials in Abu Dhabi, the largest of seven emirates forming the UAE, did not respond to interview requests.
The UAE’s embassy in Washington said it did not have information on the case and couldn’t provide a comment.
Burrow said NYU faced a “reputational risk” by operating under the UAE’s restrictive ‘Kefala’ system where workers are bonded to their employer and can’t change jobs without the consent of their sponsor.
Foreign laborers are legally prohibited from forming independent unions or going strike in the UAE, but wildcat strikes over unpaid wages or poor conditions do happen. Protesting workers have been deported.
NYU, which has built several campuses around the world including in China to become a global university, did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails seeking comment.
University spokesman John Beckman told other media that there had not been problems with academic freedom on the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi before.
The Gulf Labor Working Group, an international rights organization of which Ross is a member, sent a letter to the Guggenheim on Wednesday, urging the museum to issue a statement condemning the action against the professor.
The museum “cannot stay silent” in the face of actions which “dim if not extinguish the beacon of free expression the Guggenheim pledges to be”, the letter said.
NYU isn’t alone in facing criticism for turning a blind eye to the UAE’s poor working conditions, rights groups say.
Several hundred workers building the new Louvre project were deported after a strike over non-payment of salaries and poor housing in October 2013, Human Rights Watch reported last month..
The Tourism Development and Investment Company, the Abu Dhabi government-owned firm building the museum, rejected the report’s “unfounded conclusions” and “unknown methodologies”.
Reporting By Chris Arsenault, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith