April 22, 2017

Letter to the Editor: On Weill Medical College in Qatar

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To the Editor:

On March 17, President Rawlings responded to “Promoting Fair and Humane Labor Practices in Qatar,” a Student Assembly resolution calling on Cornell University to increase transparency about its presence in Qatar. Regrettably, he dismissed our calls to publish the dates of university meetings with Qatar Foundation officials and commit Cornell to combatting Qatar’s kafala system. As Martha Pollack assumes her role as Cornell’s president, we urge her to heed these demands and take a stronger stance than her predecessors on this critical issue.

Perhaps most regrettably, Rawlings dismissed calls for unionization at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar by noting that unions are illegal in Qatar. In light of President Rawlings’ declaration that WCM-Q cannot recognize unions because of their illegality, we reaffirm workers’ fundamental right to a union as outlined in ILO Convention 87. The committee for Freedom of Association has confirmed all Qatar-based workers’ right to form a union, noting that the country’s labor code blanketly violates the ILO’s mandate that governments respect the rights of workers to join labor organizations of their choosing “without distinction.” As it stands, WCM-Q has a simple choice between heeding the legal mandates of an effective slave-state or adhering to international labor law — and we demand that it do the latter. Pending fundamental labor reform, president-elect Pollack ought to ensure that WCM-Q grants collective bargaining rights to its workers and democratically negotiates the terms of their work with their chosen representatives. If the Qatari state resists these efforts, then perhaps our university ought to withdraw from a country that insists on maintaining a feudal employment system at all costs.


We also reaffirm our support for an independent third-party investigation into working conditions at WCM-Q. Rawlings asserted that “there have been no allegations of violations by contracted staff against their employers,” despite the fact that the International Trade Union Confederation has found widespread abuse on Education City campuses. That aside, why would workers living under kafala — the Qatari system of labor monitoring that holds workers in slavery-like conditions— feel comfortable lodging complaints with even “benevolent” employers like Cornell? Only an independent monitor can truly assure us that WCM-Q is safe for workers.

As we move forward, we acknowledge that calls for dignity at Cornell’s Doha campus are linked to worker struggles on our Ithaca campus and around the world. In the same breath that Cornell has denied student calls for increased transparency about its labor practices in Qatar, it has intimidated dining workers, undermined graduate workers’ attempts to form a democratic union, and maintained ties with sweatshop-using corporations. Though it is shameful that a university that boasts one of the world’s oldest and most respected labor programs has adopted a posture that is deeply hostile to organized labor, we retain hope that president-elect Pollack might reverse this disturbing trend. President-elect Pollack: Take concrete steps to end exploitation in Qatar!


Xavier Eddy ’19, on behalf of Cornell Organization for Labor Action

Christopher Hanna ‘18, on behalf of Amnesty International at Cornell University