February 3, 2011

COLA Cautions Against Worker Abuses in Qatar

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After hearing stories of labor abuses in Qatar, students from the Cornell Organization for Labor Action took steps Wednesday to ensure that the same abuses will not happen to Cornell employees.

On Thursday, members of COLA delivered a letter to President David Skorton’s office describing unfair labor practices commonly faced by “guest workers,” or immigrants in the country with work visas, in Qatar. The students asked Cornell to avoid committing such practices at its Weill Cornell Medical College’s Qatar campus.

Melissa Lukasiewicz ’14, vice president of COLA, asked if workers at WCMC-Q were entitled to the same rights as those on the Ithaca campus. Skorton responded, “Of course they do. Of course they do.”

He added that, because Qatar’s laws are different than those of the United States, it is more difficult to ensure that workers receive these rights.

COLA’s letter was designed to be proactive and prevent future abuses at WCMC-Q, rather than to end current ones.

“We’re not accusing them of having any violations so far. We just want to make sure the workers hired by Cornell in the future are not abused like many guest workers [in Qatar] are,” said Colin Foley ’14, treasurer of COLA.

COLA’S letter, which was also sent to Javaid I. Sheikh, dean of WCMC’s Qatar campus, and Antonio M. Gotto, Jr., dean of WCMC, proposes that Cornell make an explicit policy allowing all employees of WCMC-Q and its contractors to be able to keep their passports, to receive their full pay on time and to be provided with copies of their contracts in their native language — rights that not all guest workers in Qatar receive. COLA’s recommendations are based on a policy enacted by New York University last year concerning its campus in the United Arab Emirates and Qatari labor law, which COLA said is frequently ignored.

“Just about everything we’re asking for is already law,” Alex Bores ’13 said.

A 2010 U.S. State Department report details the labor practices that COLA hopes to end. Guest workers “face conditions indicative of involuntary servitude,” the report states. According to the report, guest workers often have their passports and other important documents confiscated, are prevented from switching jobs, and in some cases, are even physically and sexually abused by their employers.

Bores explained that guest workers are vulnerable to abuses because their visas are dependent on them having a job, so many do not report abuses for fear of getting fired.

“When one of these guest workers wants to find a job, they have to pay large fees to recruitment agencies,” Bores said. “If they’re fired, they lose their visa and can be sent back home with large debts.”

Students in COLA do not specifically accuse WCMC-Q of any of the actions described in the report, but rather hope that their letter will prevent these actions from occurring.

“We don’t know how [WCMC-Q] is involved in the violations. They’re involved in the guest worker program, and we want to make sure the violations don’t occur,” Lukasiewicz said.

On Feb. 21, COLA will be hosting an education session about workers’ rights in Qatar in order to inform the Cornell community and further their cause.

“Just because [the guest workers are] out of sight of people in Ithaca, it doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to protect their rights,” Bores said.

Original Author: Joseph Niczky