ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Former President Bill Clinton said on Sunday that he believed that New York University and the Abu Dhabi government would conduct a thorough investigation into worker rights abuses at the university’s new campus here in the country’s capital.
Delivering the first graduation speech at the campus, Mr. Clinton said the controversy had “dominated the coverage” of the university during the days leading up to the ceremony, in the heart of the capital’s cultural district.
“I wish the coverage this week had been about you,” he told the 140 graduating students. But he said the concerns raised about workers building the campus were “an opportunity to address in concrete, real flesh-and-blood form, one of the representative issues of equality and identity in the 21st century.”
In his remarks, Mr. Clinton expressed support for his friend John Sexton, N.Y.U.’s president, while voicing concern about treatment of foreign laborers who helped construct the building where the ceremony was held. The abusive practices, including underpayment of wages and overcrowded living conditions, were described in a New York Times article last Monday. Mr. Clinton’s speech avoided any direct criticism of N.Y.U. or the United Arab Emirates.
He predicted that the students would give themselves a “fist pump” of congratulations when N.Y.U. released the findings of its investigation, which he said would be a testament to the transparency of the university.
N.Y.U. apologized last week for any abuse suffered by workers building its Abu Dhabi campus and said that it would be investigating the matter with Tamkeen, an Abu Dhabi government entity overseeing the university’s project.
Mr. Clinton said he was glad he came to Abu Dhabi to deliver the graduation speech, despite pleas in the United States that he boycott the event to protest the strikebreaking, beatings, low pay, deportation and passport confiscation described in the article.
“I’m glad I did, even though, as you may have heard, there was some stirring back in the United States, trying to convince me not to,” he said.
Defending Mr. Sexton, Mr. Clinton said N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi had sought to change the worldwide pattern of migrant worker abuse by introducing a labor code of conduct.
“N.Y.U. sought to change all that here, by coming up with a code of conduct strongly supported by its Abu Dhabi partners and by the government of the U.A.E.,” Mr. Clinton said.
The code, he noted, was designed to stop the worst abuses — including the payment of high fees by workers to third-party brokers and the policy of construction companies to hold workers’ passports without their consent.
The Times reported that a vast majority of N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi construction workers interviewed by the newspaper were not allowed to keep their own passports and most had paid up to a year’s salary in advance to land jobs that typically earned less than $300 a month. Others said they were imprisoned, beaten and deported for striking.
“When this story came out, instead of going into an immediate denial, the university did something which reflects the values you have been taught here,” Mr. Clinton said. “The university, and the government, promised to look into the charges, to do it quickly, to do it honestly and, most importantly, among all the world’s skeptics, to do it transparently and if the charges were well founded, to take appropriate, remedial action promptly.”
He also reminded students of a Benjamin Franklin quote, saying: “Our critics are our friends for they show us our faults.”
“They also give us a chance to do better,” Mr. Clinton added.
The new university site is near the Abu Dhabi city center on the Saadiyat Island cultural district, where the Louvre and Guggenheim museums are also building branches. Its campus will begin its first full year in the fall after running its operations in temporary sites in Abu Dhabi for the last four years.
Zachary Stanley, a biology graduate, said the students’ hard work was overshadowed by the article. “We are definitely aware of these issues,” Mr. Stanley said.
“I think we approach this issue with a broader view than people coming from the West with a Eurocentric view,” he added. “We understand the U.A.E. is only 42 years old and we would like to see things improved.”
Nick McGeehan, a regional researcher at Human Rights Watch, also welcomed Mr. Clinton’s comments and said he hoped that N.Y.U. would honor the speech with an investigation that not only discovered how its human rights monitoring system failed, but also offer compensation for abused and imprisoned workers.
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(via NY Times)