1 September 2014
International pressure on UCL to do more to help workers on its Qatari campus is mounting. The International Trades Union Confederation (ITUC) has criticised UCL, along with seven American and one French University, for the mistreatment of workers in Qatar’s “Education City” in Doha; an academic complex that houses branches of several prestigious universities.
On its visit to the site the ITUC encountered cases where migrant workers had paid a recruitment fee of £335-£400, and then been forced to sign a contract waged around £30 per week, which was 30% less than had been promised before arrival. Other offences included the withholding of passports, and workers living in poor conditions, ten to a room.
In a letter to the ITUC, UCL attempted to evade responsibility by saying that the workers on its Qatari campuses were employed by a subcontractor, whom they had no direct influence over. The subcontractor in question is the Qatar Foundation – which established and manages the Education City complex.
However Jeffrey Vogt, the legal advisor for the ITUC said “The United Nations guiding principles on business human rights all make clear that you have a responsibility, not just for people you directly hire but for potential labour rights violations that you contribute to or are even linked to.”
Universities Union UCU is calling for UCL to take responsibility for the “modern-day slavery” occurring on their campuses.
General secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “Our universities have a duty to ensure that people working on their foreign campuses have access to the same rights as they would be afforded in the UK. UCL should be using its influence to end this type of modern-day slavery and challenge practices that risk curtailing important academic freedoms. Hiding behind sub-contractors is indefensible.”
Alison McGovern, shadow minister for international development, said – “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.”
This is the latest in a string of cases of Universities choosing to set up campuses in countries with poor human rights records and labour standards. The New York Times recently exposed the mistreatment of workers at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. Several universities, including Cambridge, have established connections with universities in Uzbekistan, despite reported mass shootings, torture and forced labour occurring there.
These events reflect the marketisation and globalisation of education, with universities putting their commercial interests ahead of human rights.