A top-flight education isn’t worth the price paid by Qatar’s migrant workers


On 12 March 2014, Equal Times wrote about the plight of migrant workers in Qatar Foundation’s Education City, a vast campus in Doha where some of the world’s most prestigious universities have established branch campuses.

Of course, no one objects to universities providing advanced education opportunities to students from the Gulf region. The problem is that these universities are lending their good name to a country in which, by law, all migrant workers, from full professor to groundskeeper, are prohibited from exercising the right to freedom of association.

This means no unions, no collective bargaining and no collective action.

Additionally, migrant workers, including those at Education City, are subject to a system which the International Labour Organisation (ILO) confirmed in March this year, could result in forced or compulsory labour.

Workers who perform administrative, maintenance or other service work at Education City (i.e. those not hired to teach), face crushing recruitment fees, the substitution of their contracts for ones with lowers wages and poorer working conditions, and the confiscation of their passports.

All workers are subject to the sponsorship system, meaning their ability to change jobs or to leave the country are dependent entirely on their sponsor.

On 14 March, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) wrote to the university presidents of the eight universities in Education City.

The ITUC called on them to conduct an independent review of the staff working at their universities in Education City, particularly workers employed by third party contractors, and to commit based on the findings to ensure that: all workers are in possession of their passports; are paid the wage rate of their initial contracts of employment; and are reimbursed for any recruitment fees they may have incurred.

Furthermore, they were urged to press the government to amend the kafala system, consistent with international norms, as well as to amend the labour law to allow migrant workers to freely associate.

To date, only two universities have responded – University College London (UCL) and Georgetown University. The reply from UCL was deeply disappointing and committed to no particular action.

It acknowledged that no workers were able to join a union but suggested that this was remedied by allowing the directly hired staff to raise grievances with administration.

When it came to indirect non-teaching workers, who perform work at UCL but who are actually employed by contractors, UCL washed their hands of any responsibility. UCL merely committed to “raise the issue of staff not employed by us but providing services at Education City with the relevant authorities as the opportunity to do so arises.”

UCL then pointed to the humanitarian work it is supporting with “marginalised communities.”

The response from Georgetown University was markedly different, reflecting a greater appreciation for the conditions of workers hired by contractors both of Georgetown and the Qatar Foundation.

It informed ITUC that since January 2014 it has been conducting a review of these working conditions.

Whether this review will in fact lead to the reforms and remedies sought by the ITUC remains to be seen, but it is a good step.

The ITUC is following up with Georgetown University to ensure that workers are not subject to conditions that lead to forced labour and to address the absence of freedom of association in Qatar.


Help make Doha’s Education City a slavery-free campus by supporting our e-action. Click here for more information.