Approximately 50 students gathered for Cornell Organization for Labor Action’s teach-in in Warren Hall Wednesday, which aimed to raise awareness about alleged human rights violations at Weill Cornell Medicine in Education City, Qatar. Following the presentation, the students marched to President Elizabeth Garrett’s office to deliver a letter demanding a third-party investigation of Cornell’s Qatar campus.
Wednesday afternoon’s teach-in and letter drop are the latest actions in COLA’s Weill Workers Suffer campaign, which demands that the University conducts an independent investigation of the labor practices at Cornell’s Qatar campus and that it upholds its mission of fair labor practices regardless of location.
COLA has had difficulties investigating the workers’ conditions since any contact with human rights organizations would result in the workers’ deportations, according to COLA member Hadiyah Chowdhury ’18. However, a report about labor practices on Qatari satellite campuses that was sent to COLA from the International Trade Union Confederation in January 2015 has further motivated their campaign, she added.
Chowdhury, who is also an arts and entertainment writer for The Sun, presented information about the Middle Eastern “kafala” system’s history of human rights violations during the teach-in.
“[The workers’] bosses may confiscate their passports and force them to continue working at the firm [under the kafala system],” Chowdhury said. “Workers are unable to find new jobs, and the money they make is often put into banks which, if deported, would be inaccessible to workers.”
Migrant workers from all over the Middle East and East Asia may have been recruited by this system to work in the construction of Cornell’s Qatar campus, according to Chowdhury. The kafala system is infamous for its dishonesty about wages and working conditions, exorbitant recruitment fees and predatory recruitment practices, she added.
Workers in the kafala system also suffer numerous other injustices, according to an information pamphlet distributed at the teach-in. The pamphlet states that workers often suffer from isolation in labor camps, labor in temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit and restricted access to food and water.
After the teach-in, COLA members and teach-in attendees marched down Tower Road to Garrett’s office in Day Hall to present a letter demanding an investigation to ensure fair labor practices at WCM Qatar. The letter follows COLA’s Sept. 15 letter to Garrett, which asked her to respond to an ITUC letter that was previously sent to university presidents.
In a letter responding to COLA’s first letter, Garrett wrote that she had not found any indications of labor rights violations at WCM Qatar.
“After thoughtful review and my own independent assessment of our operations in Doha, I am convinced that we are treating our staff in Qatar the way that we treat our staff here in Ithaca and in New York City,” Garrett wrote. “None of the abusive practices you reference in your letter take place at Weill Cornell Medical College — Qatar.”
In response, COLA’s Wednesday letter thanks Garrett, but states concerns that “Cornell is unknowingly participating in an infrastructure of labor abuse in Qatar.”
The letter continued by stating that while workers directly employed to Cornell’s Qatar campus may not suffer labor abuses, workers hired through subcontractors may be the victims of labor rights violations.
While COLA members said they were not satisfied by President Emeritus David Skorton’s standoffish response to demands for an investigation, the members said Garrett’s inauguration had given COLA renewed confidence in their campaign.
“We’re really hopeful. A lot of the rhetoric President Garrett has been using has been really exciting in terms of talking about building workers’ rights, about being a radical and progressive university,” COLA member Allison Considine ’17 said. “We’re really hopeful that she can kick off her tenure by conducting this investigation and recognizing these workers and fixing any injustices.”
Considine also encouraged students and student organizations to support the investigation by partnering with COLA by joining their Coalition Against Gulf Exploitation and attending COLA’s future meetings about the Weill Workers Suffer campaign.
“I think throughout Cornell’s history and the history of other higher education institutions, students have demonstrated they have immense power,” Considine said.