Dubai: Canadian employees at a college campus in Qatar feel trapped in the country, which has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infections in the world, because of a new directive from the college president, CBC News reported yesterday.
The College of the North Atlantic is a public college in Newfoundland and Labrador that operates a campus in the Mideast country of Qatar.
As the country deals with an outbreak of the virus, registering more than 1,000 new cases per day in a country of 2.8 million people, employees were told on Tuesday they could lose their jobs if they return home for the blazing hot summer.
Several employees spoke to CBC News on the condition of anonymity, fearing job loss or reprisal from the Qatari government, which contracts CNA to operate the campus.
“Living in a country that has, for weeks, had the highest per capita number of positive COVID cases in the world is extremely stressful, and several CNA-Q employees are anxious to leave for summer,” one employee wrote in an email late Thursday night.
In a brief statement on Friday afternoon, CNA confirmed that employees should travel at their own risk, and could be terminated if they do not make it back to the country on time.
“CNA-Q employees who decide to leave Qatar and do not return to work at CNA-Q when required may have their employment agreement terminated,” a spokesperson said.
The college is owned by the state, and has 650 employees and 4,500 students. The majority of the staff are Canadian, and many are seconded from positions with CNA in Newfoundland and Labrador. While the workers on secondment are represented by a union on home turf, their union protections do not extend to Qatar.
According to all the employees who spoke with CBC News, they were initially discouraged from leaving the country when the pandemic began, but were not threatened with any measures against them.
The campus closed down and instructors finished the term with online classes.
Scorching heat, surging disease
Most employees go home in the summer, to avoid temperatures often reaching 40 C. When the term drew to a close, college administration told them they could face the possibility of having to take unpaid leave if they were unable to get back in to Qatar when the school year starts.
On Tuesday, a letter was sent to all staff from CNA president Elizabeth Kidd, written as a frequently asked questions document.
Answering a question about leaving Qatar, Kidd bolded a section that states:
“If you make the decision to leave the country and do not or cannot return to work when expected, your employment agreement may be terminated.”
Qatar has yet to finalise its rules for foreigners returning to the country. Canadians have been told they will have to book a room at a designated quarantine hotel for 14 days when they return. The hotel room has to be booked before they can leave the country, but those hotels are currently available only for citizens of Qatar.
If and when it becomes available to Canadians, the cost will run about $5,000 for the 14-day quarantine period.
“We have perfectly good housing in Qatar, where we could quarantine,” one employee said. “It is beyond unfortunate that College of the North Atlantic would now add to that stress by threatening to fire us if we don’t come back here.”
On top of the confusion and fears about COVID-19, Kidd’s letter also told instructors they would have to return to the classroom in September and that distance learning is not an option.
“Accommodations will not be made for remote work or teaching from outside Qatar,” Kidd wrote. “If you choose to travel, you should plan accordingly.”
One instructor who spoke with CBC News said they couldn’t understand the rationale behind it, given they’d just finished the semester by distance and thought it worked fine.