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Shadow International Development Minister adds pressure on University College London over Qatar links

28 August 2014

University College London (UCL) is today being urged to do more to help workers on its campus in Qatar by Shadow International Development Minister, Alison McGovern.

In a letter to Dame Nicola Brewer, the institution's vice-provost international, McGovern says she is concerned about labour standards and the possible use of forced labour at the Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, where UCL has a campus.
McGovern, a former UCL student, cites concerns regarding the labour system employed for much of Qatar's large migrant workforce and examples of lower-paid contracts for migrant workers, the withholding of passports and trafficking of forced labour identified by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in a recent visit.
UCL is one of eight universities from the UK, US and France criticised by the ITUC for not clamping down on the poor treatment of workers in Qatar employed on their campuses. The ITUC has recently exposed modern-day slavery of workers building for the controversial 2022 FIFA World Cup.

In a letter to the ITUC, UCL claimed the ITUC's examples* were of people employed by sub-contracting firms used by the Qatar Foundation and that it had no direct influence over the sub-contractors.

However, both McGovern and the UK lecturers' union UCU have called on UCL to stamp out unacceptable working conditions, even if the individuals concerned are not directly employed by UCL.
UCU said that the university should be setting an example to the rest of the world by challenging human rights violations and promoting academic freedoms, not hiding behind sub-contractors to discharge itself of responsibility.
UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'We are pleased that Alison McGovern is drawing attention to the plight of workers on UCL's Qatari campus. Our universities must ensure that people working on foreign campuses have access to the same rights as they would be afforded in the UK, regardless of who employs them. It is simply not acceptable for UCL to hide behind sub-contractors in an effort to discharge itself of responsibility.'
Alison McGovern MP said: 'Too many migrant workers in Qatar are subject to forced labour, poverty pay and appalling working and housing conditions under the kafala system. Rightly, there has been a lot of attention focused on what is happening to workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, but the truth is that this exploitative labour system permeates much of Qatar's economy. All British firms and organisations operating in Qatar need to look carefully at the way the workers they rely on are treated, and universities like UCL can be no exception to that.'
TUC general secretary, Frances O'Grady, said: 'Qatar has become a byword for modern slavery, and its disregard for migrant workers' rights should worry any responsible employer. Whether they are builders, footballers or cleaners, Qatar must treat everyone with respect and dignity. UCL can't just wash its hands because the workers aren't directly employed by them. Ethical employment means ensuring decent work at every step in the global supply chain, and the university should respond swiftly and positively to the concerns expressed by so many.'
UCU will be working with the ITUC to promote a petition that calls for an end modern day slavery on campuses. For copies of the correspondence between the ITUC and UCL, contact the UCU press office.

Alison McGovern's letter in full:

Dame Nicola Brewer, PhD DCMG
Vice Provost, International
University College London
Gower Street
28 August 2014
Dear Dame Nicola,
I was concerned to read an article in Times Higher Education on 21 August regarding labour standards and the possibility of the use of forced labour at the Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, where UCL has a campus.
As you will be aware, there is significant public concern regarding the labour system employed for much of Qatar's very large migrant workforce, the so-called 'kafala' system, which sees workers tied to an employer, their passports confiscated until completion of the contract, unacceptable conditions of accommodation and lax health and safety standards, combined with poverty levels of pay. Much of the international concern has centered on the infrastructure construction in preparation for the 2022 World Cup, but it is clear that the use of kafala extends into every part of Qatar's economy.
The THE article includes disturbing evidence of unacceptable employment practices at the university complex arising from a visit by the International Trade Union Confederation, including the imposition of lower-paid contracts for migrant workers after arrival in Qatar, the with-holding of passports and trafficking for forced labour, including the charging of recruitment fees. These are practices which I'm sure you will agree are unacceptable in any workplace and which an institution such as UCL should be doing all it can to stamp out in any location that it is functioning, even if the individuals concerned are not direct employees of the College.
With my colleagues in the shadow international development team, I have been working with trade unions and campaign groups to highlight and campaign against the use of the kafala system in Qatar. As an alumni of UCL, I have a particular personal interest in this instance. I would be very grateful if it would be possible to arrange a meeting in the near future to discuss this matter and what steps UCL can take to ensure that its operations in Qatar do not inadvertently support the use of forced labour.
Yours sincerely,
Alison McGovern MP
Shadow Minister for International Development

* ITUC's examples:

Office assistant from Philippines
She has been employed as an office assistant for roughly two years. Her current salary is QR 1,000 (US$275) per month, though she was promised by her recruiter that the salary would be considerably higher. Indeed, she was told she would work in a hotel, not the university, and be able to make a lot of money. She was required to pay 30,000 Filipino pesos to recruiters for her job, around $666.

Office helper from Philippines
She has worked in Education City for roughly two years. She reported working at times 12-15 hours a day, usually making coffee and running errands. She earns QR 900 ($247) a month but was promised QR 1,200 ($329). She was forced to sign a new contract against her will. She paid recruitment fees of 25,000 pesos, around $555. She reported that if a worker is sick, the employer deducts the sick days from their wages.

Cleaner from Philippines
She has worked in Education City for just over two years and. She was also told she would be working in a hotel. When she arrived, she became a tea server. After a few months, she was told she had to become a cleaner, which she did not want to do. She was told she would earn QR 1,200, but she now earns only QR 800 ($219). She explained that this leaves her with very little money at the end of the month - not enough to save or to send home to her family - the whole purpose of working in Qatar. She also paid visa and recruitment fess of 30,000 pesos.
Cleaner from Sri Lanka
He has worked in Education City for several years, and at the current university for nearly two. He migrated from Sri Lanka upon paying a recruitment fee and was told he would earn QR 1,200 (US$320). However, after years of work, he earns only QR 800 today. The cleaning contractor has withheld his passport. He lives in a room with 10 other men in a labour camp far from the campus.

Last updated: 10 April 2019