February 28, 2011

COLA Pushes for Better Labor Standards in Qatar

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Citing a U.S. State Department report, members of Cornell’s Organization for Labor Action organized a teach-in at Ives Hall on Monday to urge the University to stengthen its employment practices in Qatar.“COLA is trying to push for Cornell to adapt a code of conduct for how not only Cornell workers but also how subcontractor workers, are treated in Qatar,” Casey Sweeney ’13, former president of COLA, said. “We’re also speaking about a form of implementation and monitoring for the code of conduct. The next step is to keep educating students and getting the word out.”Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, collective bargaining, acknowledged that many questions remained unanswered and there was still work to do on campus.“What can we do as faculty, students and staff in N.Y. to make sure C.U. is treating workers in Qatar well?” she said.At the teach-in, professors questioned Cornell’s labor accountability practices in Qatar due to the lack of legal safeguards.“Cornell says that we’re completely independent, but still, the money is still coming from the Qatar Foundation,” Lieberwitz said. The Qatar campus’ “complete dependence on the Emir,” the leader of Qatar, complicates the University’s role in demanding basic social and labor protections, as “they hold the purse strings,” she said.Most workers on Cornell’s Qatar campus are employed by independent subcontractors to perform janitorial and maintenance work, according to Tarrek Hegab grad, who studies at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. The contracting firms, Hegab and others said at Monday’s rally, are not required to abide by Cornell’s more stringent working and safety regulations, as Qatar lacks comprehensive labor standards.

The medical school is funded entirely by the Qatar Foundation, a non-profit organization established by the Qatari government, or the Emir. Since the medical school is independent of the University’s funding, the workers are not subject to Cornell’s labor standards.Lieberwitz said Qatar lacks basic civil or social regulations, as laborers are routinely harassed, denied the right to join a union and lack basic civil liberties. Lieberwitz quoted a State Department report that said workers are “exploited and political rights violated” on a regular basis. The memo also mentioned “forced labor, including servitude and slave-like conditions,” she added.Hegab agreed, noting that workers are “abused” and provided “very poor living conditions.” After working at a psychiatric hospital in Qatar, Hegab noticed that working conditions are so severe in the country that many guest workers in the country attempt suicide.“There are laborers admitted to the hospital for attempted suicide,” he said, since “a lot of them see their attempts as a way to get out of the country because their passports are withheld from them.” Employers confiscate guest workers’ passports upon arrival in the country, according to Hegab, virtually rendering them indentured servants.In response to tales of harsh working conditions, student groups on the Ithaca campus are trying to organize and lobby politically.For the 2011 fiscal year, the Qatar campus projected an overall budget of $117.4 million, an 18-percent increase from the year before, according to the 2010-2011 University Financial Plan.Lieberwitz said “the reason that Cornell is there is because Qatar has a lot of money,” and the medical school was “shopping for a campus.”When faculty challenged the administration’s view by stating that a medical campus could be more effective in a third-world country, the administration claimed that “there are a lot of problems with diabetes,” Lieberwitz said, criticizing the University’s official reasoning.

Original Author: Max Schindler