November 30, 2015

Garrett’s Response to Issues in Qatar Frustrates Students

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Clarification appended

Students from the Cornell Organization for Labor Action are frustrated by the administration’s lack of action, after President Elizabeth Garrett acknowledged through a letter on Nov. 9, but did not approve, a Student Assembly resolution that calls for an investigation of labor practices at Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar.

Resolution 16 —”Addressing Labor Issues in Qatar” — was sponsored by COLA and adopted by the S.A. in a 24-1-0 vote on Oct. 16. The resolution, which was then conveyed to Garrett on Oct. 25, calls for an independent third party investigation to monitor workers’ rights across the Gulf region.

According to Paul Russell ’19, freshman-at-large representative, COLA and the S.A. were spurred to action by a report released by the International Trade Union Confederation in March 2014, which described alleged exploitation and forced labor of migrant workers in Education City, Qatar.

After COLA launched a campaign calling for the administration to address the issues raised by the ITUC with a letter drop earlier this semester, Garrett responded to COLA in a letter, writing that she had not found any abuses of labor at Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar.

According to the resolution, however, Garrett’s response was “unsatisfactory to [COLA] as they were expecting the University to launch an investigation for these concerns.”

In response, the S.A. resolution continued to push for an “independent monitoring process,” a resulting report from the investigation and committed and timely action from the University based on the report.

In a letter to S.A. president Juliana Batista ’16, who conveyed the resolution, Garrett wrote that she appreciated students’ commitment to this issue, but added that the demand made in the resolution is “unrealistic.”

“Cornell’s mission in Qatar is to train a new generation of doctors (men and women) to enable the ongoing transformation of patient care and quality of life in the region. We have been doing this successfully since 2002,” Garrett wrote. “The notion, as put forward in SA Resolution 16, that Cornell would mount an effort with all foreign universities operating in the Gulf to monitor workers’ rights across the entire region is, frankly, unrealistic and threatens to divert resources from areas where we can be most effective.”

In her letter, Garrett also listed actions that Cornell has taken in an effort to protect workers at the Qatar campus. These actions include regular contact with contracted staff, collaboration with other branch campuses and the Qatar Foundation, provision of free meals and classes for workers and a new community outreach support initiative focused on assisting contracted employees.

“As I stated in my previous two letters to COLA, we are firmly committed to ensuring that those who work for us at WCM-Q, directly or through contracts, are treated in a manner consistent with our own enduring values,” Garrett wrote.

Despite assurances that the University is actively improving working conditions for WCM-Q employees, students are still disappointed by Garrett’s reaction to the resolution.

COLA member Michael Ferrer ’16 said he believes Garrett’s refusal to approve the resolution was “a bit discouraging” and showed that the administration did not want to actively solve a problem that it was aware of.

“The lack of transparency and lack of commitment to respecting workers rights and advocating for workers is very concerning,” COLA member Allison Considine ’17 said.

However, despite the disappointing response, Considine still said that COLA plans to continue pressuring  the University to increase transparency about its Qatari labor practices.

Student organizations have also organized a rally announcing the Coalition Against Gulf Exploitation this Thursday at 12:45 p.m. on Ho Plaza, according to Ferrer.

While students are frustrated with the administration’s lack of action, some students were still hopeful that Garrett’s acknowledgement of the resolution would lead to future action.

“While I feel that Cornell’s work to advocate for its employees is far from over, I was happy to see that progress is being made,” Russell said.

Clarification: A previous version of this story said President Elizabeth Garrett wrote in a letter to COLA that she had not found any labor abuses in Qatar.  However, Garrett wrote that she had not found any abuses of labor at Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar. The phrase in the story has been reworded to reflect this more accurately.