Education City might gleam around UCL's campus, but workers' rights are a murky affair in Qatar. (c) Sam Agney. Edited for shape. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
British University teaching Qatar wrong lesson on workers’ rights
A British University operating in Qatar is under fire for ignoring the rights and conditions of workers providing it with essential services.
University College London (UCL), angered those campaigning for rights for Qatar’s vast migrant workforce, including the University & College Union (UCU), when it said it would be “inappropriate” for them to review the conditions under which their office assistants, cleaners and other support staff were working.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) wrote to several British, American and French higher education institutions operating in Qatar’s “Education City”, a continually expanding zone of Doha that houses at least eight overseas universities, as well as think tanks and the children’s TV section of Al Jazeera. The letter highlighted a number of case studies of workers employed on campus not directly by the universities, but by the Qatar Foundation, an organisation that aims to make “Qatar a nation that can be a vanguard for productive change in the region and a role model for the broader international community.”
According to the case studies, rather than bringing about change, the Foundation is guilty of the same abuses of rights that are blighting the lives of the migrant workforce building the controversial World Cup infrastructure for Qatar 2022.
Among the worst of these, for those able to work away from the lethal construction sites of the World Cup, are the dishonest and rapacious activities of recruitment agents, compounded by the severe restrictions on leaving the country underpinned by Qatar’s inhuman kafala sponsorship system.
Under kafala, an employer can deny an employee the right to change jobs and even to leave the country. Workers travelling to Qatar are promised well-paid jobs fitting their skills – when they arrive they find, more often than not, that their contracts are substituted for a more menial job on much less pay. Because of kafala, there is not one single thing any one of them can do about it.
Compounding this are greedy recruiting agents who charge a hefty finder’s fee, paid for not by the employer but by the workers themselves. Hundreds of thousands of workers arrive in the country already burdened by a debt that their low wages makes very difficult to pay off.
The ITUC uncovered examples of staff at the university who had paid recruiters’ fees of between £335 and £400, and were trying to pay it off with salaries equivalent to £30 per week, often 30% lower than what had been promised.
UCL’s response that they had “no direct influence” over the Qatar Foundation’s employment practices is either a poor excuse or a hopelessly naïve misunderstanding about their responsibilities not just as an employer but as a British business operating abroad. The British Government’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office Business and Human Rights Action Plan clearly states that businesses should “emphasise the importance of behaviour in line with the [UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights] to their supply chains in the UK and overseas.” It is not enough to, as UCL goes on to promise, “raise the issue” with the Foundation. All workers at UCL’s Qatar campus are UCL’s responsibility.
Having said that, UCL have at least claimed to provide decent guarantees to their direct employees. They promise not to use the provisions of kafala to block exit from the country, not to withhold passports (a common tactic amongst employers in Qatar), to respect contracts signed abroad and to provide means by which workers can raise and discuss issues affecting them without fear of penalty or retribution, despite Qatar’s laws preventing foreign workers joining unions. These are actions which, as a bare minimum, every business working in Qatar should follow.
None of this excuses UCL for failing to push for those rights to be accorded to all the workers on campus. As the UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt said:
“Our universities have a duty to ensure that people working on their foreign campuses have access to the same rights as they would be afforded in the UK. UCL should be using its influence to end this type of modern-day slavery and challenge practices that risk curtailing important academic freedoms. Hiding behind sub-contractors is indefensible.”
Businesses are too quick use sub-contractors and supply chains to absolve themselves of responsibility for the working conditions of those that generate their success and profits. Being a university does not make UCL any less complicit in exploitation than if they were sourcing textiles from Bangladesh or shrimp from Thailand.
Hopefully UCL will now realise just how wrong their initial response was and start making conditions for all workers a key part of their deal with the Qatar Foundation and Education City. If not, they may find a lot of people lining up to teach them a lesson.