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As NYU Expands into Abu Dhabi, UAE Bars Professor Researching Migrant Worker Abuse

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The United Arab Emirates has barred New York University professor Andrew Ross from entering the country after he published research about migrant workers and labor abuse in the Gulf state. Ross learned of the ban after arriving at the airport in New York, where he was set to board a flight to continue his research in the UAE, a close U.S. ally. Now it has emerged that a private investigator was also hired to target him and a New York Times reporter who wrote the exposé on workers at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus facing harsh conditions. Ross, who serves as president of NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, joins us to discuss the case.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show with the case of a New York professor who has been barred from entering the United Arab Emirates after he criticized the monarchy’s exploitation of migrant laborers. New York University professor Andrew Ross said he learned of the ban after arriving at the airport in New York, where he was set to board a flight to continue his research in the UAE, a close U.S. ally, where NYU has a satellite campus. On Friday, The New York Times reported that a New York-based private investigator has been making inquiries about Ross, as well as former New York Times reporter Ariel Kaminer, who revealed migrant workers at NYU’s Abu Dhabi site faced harsh conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: In response to Democracy Now!'s request for comment on Ross's case, NYU spokesman John Beckman sent a written statement saying, quote, “We cannot know all the thinking that goes into any immigration authority’s decisions about who is or is not granted a visa, and we’ve had people who were coming to our campus in New York on academic matters who have been denied visas by the US authorities, including one in recent days,” he said.

To talk more about the case, we’re joined by Andrew Ross, sociology professor at NYU and president of NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. He is author of several books, including, most recently, Creditocracy: And the Case for Debt Refusal.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Andrew Ross. So, first tell us what happened when you tried to go to Abu Dhabi, and then what you then found out.

ANDREW ROSS: OK. Well, I was denied permission to board the flight when I got to the airport, and I asked for reasons. And they called the UAE authorities, and I was told that I was barred from entry to the country for security reasons. And there was no other reason given for that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what was it—what do you suspect is the reason behind your being barred from the country?

ANDREW ROSS: Well, there’s no doubt in my mind. I’ve been researching abuses of migrant laborers in the country, in the UAE, for some time, and I was traveling to do research on that very topic that week. When I was there before, I was followed by security agents in a car. And as you mentioned, a private investigator has been looking into my affairs. So, it wasn’t entirely surprising to me.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how you learned that a private investigator is talking to people about you.

ANDREW ROSS: Oh, well, one of the people she called up contacted me to let me know. I don’t know if that was the only person she called.

AMY GOODMAN: Was this a friend?

ANDREW ROSS: It was an acquaintance, an academic acquaintance.

AMY GOODMAN: This was the professor at University of Virginia?

ANDREW ROSS: Yes, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And the private investigator started to question her about you and also Ariel Kaminer, the former New York Times reporter who did a story in part based on your research on what was happening to workers in Abu Dhabi?

ANDREW ROSS: Well, that was her independent research, the article. But it was a very important article, because it—so important that it was not printed. The newspaper was not printed in the Emirates that day. It was the first time The New York Times was actually banned from circulation. When the investigator called this contact, she prefaced the inquiry by saying that this was in connection with the pressure that was currently on NYU’s president regarding the allegations of labor abuse in Abu Dhabi. So it was quite clear that this was the context for the investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: This was a front-page piece in The New York Times, the piece by Ariel Kaminer—


AMY GOODMAN: —based on independent reporting on what was happening with the workers who were building the NYU satellite campus.

ANDREW ROSS: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what was happening to them.

ANDREW ROSS: Well, the piece that you mentioned is one of a series of pieces written by independent journalists over the years, and Human Rights Watch reports and also reports by the Gulf Labor Coalition, which I work with. I’m part of Gulf Labor, which is a group of artists and writers that put pressure on the Guggenheim Museum, because the Guggenheim is also building in Abu Dhabi. And through our investigations, we have discovered a fairly consistent pattern of Fair Labor Standards violations and human rights abuses among the migrant workforce in the UAE, and also in Qatar, neighboring Qatar, because it’s the same migrant labor sponsorship system that brings workers from South Asia to these two countries, and it’s a very harsh system.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in 2009, NYU issued a Statement of Labor Values, which said it would guarantee free treatment of the workers who were building its campus in Abu Dhabi, so—and they’ve also said in a subsequent statement that they frequently use contractors and subcontractors for these workers, so they’re not directly responsible for how those contractors treat those workers. Could you comment on that?

ANDREW ROSS: Well, the fair labor statement, the Statement of Labor Values, was established largely through pressure from a group of us at NYU, a group of faculty and students. It wasn’t something the administration took on by itself. And having these standards on paper, as it were, is all very well, but the enforcement is the more important thing. As we know, the U.S. has perfectly good labor laws—it could be better, but they’re perfectly good—but they’re just not enforced. So, it’s the enforcement of them where people fell down on the job.

As far as the argument about subcontracting, this is pretty much the same argument that Nike and the Gap used to make in the origins of the anti-sweatshop movement: “This is not our problem; we have no responsibility for what happens further down the subcontracting chain.” There is a very tight, rigid sense of responsibility, in my mind and most peoples’ minds. And the barring of entry to researchers, especially NYU professors like myself, has some serious implications for the operation of the campus overseas in Abu Dhabi.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2013, The Guardian released a video called “The Dark Side of Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Revolution.” Reporter Glenn Carrick described the conditions of migrant workers in Abu Dhabi from Bangladesh and Pakistan.

GLENN CARRICK: In this workers’ camp, men put up sheets around the toilet for privacy, and cook in squalid kitchens. In the bedrooms, 43 Bangladeshi men bunk together, 10 to each windowless room. They earn $245 a month painting the New York University campus, working long hours, six days a week. All were too afraid to speak on camera. Many said they wanted to return home but were trapped by the thousands of dollars they owed to recruitment companies in Bangladesh.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Guardian reporter Glenn Carrick describing the conditions faced. Now, what is NYU saying? I mean, the front-page New York Times piece, “Workers at NYU’s Abu Dhabi Site Face Harsh Conditions,” has this picture of so many workers who are all sleeping in bunk beds in one room. And it says, “Migrant workers, in their tiny apartment in Abu Dhabi, earn as little as $272 a month while building a campus for New York University.” This is not only about UAE; New York University, as well, your employer.

ANDREW ROSS: Mm-hmm. Well, that was very bad news. It wasn’t surprising to us, though. Us, by which I mean the faculty and students who have been pushing for adequate enforcement of these labor values. And the administration at NYU has hired an independent investigator to look into the allegations, and that report will be forthcoming very soon. It’ll be very interesting to see what they come up with. Very difficult to investigate these allegations unless you go to India or Bangladesh or Pakistan, where the workers were deported back to after they spoke up about their grievances. This is typically the case with strikes or work stoppages in the UAE. The workers are rounded up and detained, abused, often beaten, and then deported without a cent in their pockets. So to properly investigate these allegations, you would need to go and interview those workers, which some of us have done, some of our group have done, but I very much doubt if the independent investigator has done that.

AMY GOODMAN: But isn’t it the university’s responsibility to do this? They are pouring millions of dollars into the building of their own campus.

ANDREW ROSS: It’s not the university’s money. Everything is being bankrolled by the UAE. That’s the main reason why—

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s true outside of NYU, as well, these other campuses from—

ANDREW ROSS: Absolutely. An immense amount of money has been allocated to buy these cultural assets. But it’s not like purchasing property on Central Park South or Mayfair. When you buy a university and a top-ranked museum, there are a lot of speech protections and artistic freedom protections that have to come with it. And that’s part of the problem when you start muzzling the voices of those who start making inquiries into conditions in the country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But do you think that given these conditions, either NYU or the cultural institutions, Guggenheim, the Louvre, etc., that are all on the Saadiyat Island, whether they should be established there, given what workers are subjected to?

ANDREW ROSS: Well, that—I mean, the train already left the station on that. The decision was made: They’re building the buildings. But they have a lot of responsibilities going in. The question is: Have their voices, have the directors and the presidents of these institutions, have their voices been bought and paid for, as well? Because so far the president of NYU has had nothing to say about the recent incidents.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andrew Ross, we want to thank you so much for being with us, sociology professor at New York University and president of NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, recently barred from entering the United Arab Emirates after he criticized the monarchy’s exploitation of migrant workers.

And that does it for our show. Our condolences to our director, Becca Staley. Her brother-in-law, U.S. Army Captain Jon Wynkoop, was killed in a training accident at Fort Bliss in Texas. He was 27 years old, leaves behind his wife, Rachel, and their three children — Graham, four; Leah, three; and Jacob, almost 11 months.

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