Qatar tackling migrant worker abuses at Education City

A strong defence of the treatment of migrant workers on Western campuses in Qatar came last week from the chair of the World Innovation Summit for Education – WISE – Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani.

Speaking at a press briefing during the WISE conference, Dr Al-Thani, who is a member of the Qatari royal family and has a British PhD, said that Qatar was doing what it could to ensure that unacceptable employment practices were stamped out at Education City in Doha.

His comments follow pressure from a British MP, the shadow minister for international development, and evidence collected by the International Trade Union Confederation, which represents workers’ rights around the world.

They complained that migrant workers were being paid lower-than-expected wages, had their passports confiscated and were living in cramped conditions.

Education City houses the campuses of eight leading universities from the United States, Britain and France including University College London or UCL, Georgetown, Northwestern, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M and HEC Paris.

It aims to be the leading education hub of the Middle East and has been erecting sumptuous buildings in Doha using migrant labour.

Al-Thani said that the Qataris had put in place “strong rules” for its contractors in Education City. The rules were so tough, he said, that some of the construction companies complain that it is almost impossible to operate “because you are asking for workers to be put in seven star hotels and we cannot do that because it’s too expensive”.

Of course this pushed up prices. “But for us that’s very important,” he said.

Qatar has expanded extremely fast in the past 15 years. Although the government put regulations in place, some companies tried to get round them, he said. “There have been some mistakes.

“But the government is very serious about it now. They want to overcome this issue, and they want to be assured of the wellbeing of the workers.”

Qatar has attracted a lot of attention because of the 2022 World Cup, he said. If you travel in the Gulf region, you will find that other countries are not attending to workers’ rights in the way that Qatar is, he added.

“I think we are more advanced in how we put our regulations in place.

“But I cannot tell you that there are no mistakes happening by certain companies or contractors, because of course they want to make money out of this.”

The Qataris had worked closely with one Western university to set regulations for construction companies. As a result there were no accidents on site. “That kind of partnership was really important for us,” he said.

Al-Thani said that UCL was in contact with the Qatar Foundation, a non-profit organisation that set up and funds Education City. “We have an open dialogue and we have meetings,” he said. “We meet with the university presidents, and we talk openly to them.”

The Qatar revelations come after other cases where universities have been questioned about the quality of their employment and health and safety practices.

Recently New York University was in trouble after an investigation by The New York Times claimed mistreatment of migrant workers at its Abu Dhabi campus.