February 5, 2019

EDITORIAL: Past Time to Investigate Cornell’s Qatar Campus

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The University’s longstanding, disturbing refusal to investigate labor conditions at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar has fallen out of the discussion as of late. It is past time to bring the discussion back to light.

Some context for the uninitiated. Human rights groups charge that Qatar’s foreign labor sponsorship system enables exploitation bordering on slavery. Migrant laborers come to the Gulf nation seeking work, but are quickly funneled into involuntary servitude. Laws which let employers revoke workers’ exit permits, prevent them from switching jobs and deny them housing on a whim bind expatriate workers to Qatar.

A much-discussed 2014 report from the International Trade Union Confederation, a labor group, alleges widespread worker exploitation in Education City, the Qatari state-sponsored education complex that WCM-Q calls home. All this creates the very real possibility that WCM-Q may be, directly or through some contractor, exploiting its workers.

And yet Cornell has been frustratingly tight-lipped on labor conditions at WCM-Q. It has resisted a third-party investigation. Former Cornell presidents did little more than downplay and dismiss concerns about WCM-Q. A 2017 Student Assembly resolution on WCM-Q was met with a chilly acknowledgment — and no commitment to accountability.

It is not as if Cornell does not understand the moral imperative here. Indeed, in 2015 when pressed on concerns over labor conditions, Robert Harrison ’76, chair of the Board of Trustees, said, “We treat our staff in Doha, Qatar exactly the same way [as] in Ithaca, New York. We have values to protect. We have missions to accomplish that are consistent with those values.”

So why, then, does the administration filibuster a third-party investigation, one that could put all these questions finally to rest? In the face of this inconvenient question, the laudable sentiments Harrison offers cannot help but ring hollow.

The administration needs to provide answers on WCM-Q, and urgently. The best way to credibly do so is with an independent investigation. President Martha Pollack has said little on the issue. But she must realize the University cannot be in the business of abetting forced labor. Just the possibility alone ought to make President Pollack shudder — and then investigate.