ROME, March 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Labour rights'
campaigners are concerned the Abu Dhabi government is cracking
down on free expression after a U.S. professor researching
migrant labour conditions was barred from the United Arab
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 labourers 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 labour 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
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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 labourers 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
organisation 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 becon 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)