First in a three-part series
Former employees of the College of the North Atlantic in Qatar are taking the college to court because they say they’re not getting paid tens of thousands of dollars to which they’re entitled.
Of the cases that have gone through the courts thus far, judges have ordered the college to pay up every time, but CNA administration says it will keep fighting the cases until it gets a final verdict from Qatar’s top court.
Liberal education critic Andrew Parsons says he believes the situation may be serious enough that it could be the catalyst that prevents the government from renewing the “comprehensive agreement” with the state of Qatar, which would lead to the CNA campus being shut down.
“People are suing — bringing our government and the college to court — and winning every time, and the college comes out and says very bold and blunt, we don’t agree with it, we will keep fighting no matter how many cases we lose,” Parsons said.
Ken Mills and his wife, Yasmien, worked at the college for several years.
They are suing CNA for the end of service gratuity — a sum of more than $30,000.
“We were there for a very long time; we poured our heart and soul into that bloody college, you know, and now as the employees are leaving, it’s owed to us,” Ken said. “Every single employer in Qatar is responsible for paying this, as can be proven by the fact that everyone who has sued the college has won.”
Some did not want to file suit
Some current and former employees who spoke to The Telegram for this story say they declined to sue for the end of service gratuity. In some cases this was because they were hoping to receive future work with the college. In other cases it’s because they were leaving the country and were uncomfortable paying a lawyer thousands of dollars and giving them power of attorney to fight the case on their behalf.
Advanced Education and Skills Minister Joan Burke refused comment for this story.
Qatari law states that whenever anybody leaves a job, they are legally entitled to an “end of service gratuity” as a sort of severance, based on the rate of pay and the number of years worked.
The law was introduced in 2005, several years after the CNA Qatar campus was set up.
Ann Marie Vaughan, president of CNA, said as far as the college is concerned, the contracts for all Canadian employees working in Qatar are governed by Canadian labour laws, and therefore the employees are not entitled to the end of service gratuity.
“We’re really trying to get a resolution here, because we have two opinions,” she said.
“We have the state officials and our employment contract, which is a Canadian employment contract, and we have an interpretation of the courts that doesn’t match the legal interpretation that we’re being given, both here in the province and also with the representatives that we have in Qatar.”
Vaughan said ultimately they hope to get a decision from the Court of Cassation, Qatar’s top court, which would set a precedent for all future cases.
In the Qatari legal system, lower courts’ decisions do not establish precedent, so despite losing all of the cases that have happened thus far, the college is continuing to fight the employees who seek the end of service gratuity.
The situation is further complicated by an extremely complex pay structure for employees at the college.
Yasmien described the situation as “tangled by design” to prevent employees from fully understanding the breakdown of their compensation.
For example, in 2008, the governing board of the CNA in Qatar approved a 12.25 per cent “cost of living allowance,” but then administrators withheld six per cent of that pay increase, to be paid out when the employee left the college.
The six per cent payment was called “End of Service Compensation” and was meant to be a substitute for the end of service gratuity.
The courts have since ruled that because employees were entitled to be paid the cost of living allowance as part of their compensation, and the end of service compensation was part of that, it wasn’t a substitute for the college’s responsibility to pay the end of service gratuity.
The complexity of the situation led to former employee Alan Luyt making a complaint to provincial ombudsman Barry Fleming.
Fleming authored a 20-page report on the situation and made a series of recommendations to the college, including an audit to determine whether Luyt had been appropriately compensated.
Fleming recommended, “That the College of the North Atlantic conduct an audit of Mr. Luyt’s salary to determine whether or not he has been receiving the full amount of his salary as per the (comprehensive agreement), his employment contract, and any increases that were ap-proved subsequent to his contract.”
Vaughan was not prepared to discuss Luyt’s case specifically, but she said everybody has been paid everything they’re entitled to.
“We have never been questioned on anything in terms of an error in calculation,” Vaughan said. “He was paid in accordance with his employment contract.”
Luyt is also suing the college in Qatar for the end of service gratuity.
He said there’s also talk of a class-action lawsuit in Canada — for up to $20 million — related to the end of service gratuity.
Vaughan argued the college is already paying employees generously and most of them are satisfied with their compensation.
The average salary at CNA Qatar is $100,000 and employees get their housing paid for, along with transportation back to Canada annually and tuition for up to two children in Qatari schools.
“We’re not trying to be bad employers here at all,” she said. “We do very well in the provision of salary and benefits to our employees who work there.”