London students question migrant abuse at UCL Qatar Campus

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Dec 8 2014

Students and lecturers at University College London are gearing up for a campaign to end the mistreatment of migrant workers at their university’s satellite campus in Education City, Qatar.

In a report published in August, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) criticized UCL, one of the world’s top five universities, for allowing the mistreatment of workers at its Qatar campus According to the ITUC, recruiters charged illegal placement fees to contract workers in support roles such as cleaning, catering and office administration, and upon their arrival in Qatar, forced them to sign new contracts with lower wages than initially agreed.

“UCL was originally founded in the 19th century for ethnic, social and religious minorities that were excluded from Oxford and Cambridge. Yet today we have a campus in Qatar where minorities are being oppressed. It’s disgusting,” said one student.

UCL Qatar is located at Doha's Education City, and currently occupies the second floor of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

UCL Qatar is located at Doha's Education City, and currently occupies the second floor of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

Members of the students’ union and the lecturers’ union gathered for an initial meeting last week where they were joined by Alison McGovern, shadow children’s minister, Stephen Russell, international policy officer at the Trade Union Congress and Shreya Paudel, international students’ officer at the National Union of Students.

McGovern, herself a UCL alumna, urged the university to use its global influence to ‘demand transparency’ regarding the treatment of migrant workers in Education City.

She has been actively involved in putting pressure on the university this year, writing to Dame Nicola Brewer, UCL’s vice-provost international, in August, to express her concern about labour standards at the Doha campus.

“One immediate step UCL could take is to stop outsourcing support roles at its Qatar campus to contractors and to bring all of the workers back in house. That would at least give UCL more direct control over how the migrants are treated”

Additionally, McGovern has also been working with Jim Murphy, Labour MP and former shadow minister for international development, to campaign against the abuses of migrant workers building World Cup 2022 infrastructure.

“There are two reasons behind our campaign, one frivolous, and one more serious. Jim and I are both huge football fans and we were horrified that the game we spend so much time watching, discussing and thinking about was implicated with such appalling human rights abuses” said McGovern

“But we also realised that abusive treatment of migrant workers was a threat to the kind of international development work that the UK is involved in. So many communities in the developing world are impacted by migration to the Gulf. Unsafe and abusive migration harms not only individuals but whole communities, and is a major barrier to wider economic development”.

One of the problems, according to speakers at the event, is that most of the migrant workers at UCL are hired and managed by subcontractors.

“One immediate step UCL could take is to stop outsourcing support roles at its Qatar campus to contractors and to bring all of the workers back in house. That would at least give UCL more direct control over how the migrants are treated” said one representative of the lecturer’s union.

Students, activists and trade unionists based in London have a unique opportunity to take Qatar to task over its treatment of migrant workers in Education City and other mega-projects, said Paudel:

“The Qatari government is very sensitive to what happens in London. Protests here can potentially have a big impact, so we need to think collectively about what we can do here to put pressure on them to take action on human rights”.

Paudel’s uncle, a human rights advocate Krishna Upadhyaya, was detained and held in solitary confinement by the Qatari authorities in September after investigating the rights of migrant workers at FIFA World Cup building sites. International outcry, which included protests outside the Qatari embassy in Mayfair and coverage by the BBC, the Guardian and several of the British tabloid papers helped to pressure the Qatari government into releasing his uncle, said Paudel.

UCL is one of eight international universities that has a campus at Education City, an initiative of the Qatar Foundation. These include Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, Carnegie Mellon University and HEC Paris.

UCL published a statement in September in response to allegations of abuse of migrants at the site, holding that allegations of migrant worker abuse were 'neither fair nor accurate'.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East