Qatar’s Labour Challenge

by  — 14 January 2013

In June 2012, Human Rights Watch published a controversial report regarding alleged poor treatment and working conditions for migrant labourers in Qatar. Attention in particular was paid to the construction sector in the lead up to the World Cup 2022, which the organisation says should be called into question, should Qatar not improve labour rights in the country.

During 2012 the plight of migrant workers and their treatment in Qatar was repeatedly focused on, in main due to a report by New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch, which issued a controversial report on the situation in the country in June. Picture are cramped sleeping quarters at one of the Doha’s many workers acommodation compounds (Image by Matilde Gattoni, courtesy Human Rights Watch)

On the first day of December 2012, while Doha was hosting the COP 18 Climate Summit, for the first time in Qatar’s history campaigners and activists were permitted to take part in a demonstration rally on the Corniche. 

The march was largely aimed at calling attention to climate change issues in the country, but also focused on labour rights in Qatar. International trade union representatives that took part in the rally,  which was called ‘Climate Justice, Workers Justice’ and wore masks of two Nepalese migrant workers who, according to New York-based private non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) had been grossly mistreated in the country.  Funded by United States billionaire George Soros, HRW is one of the world’s leading independent organisations, dedicated to defending and protecting human rights by drawing international attention to where human rights are violated.

In June 2012 HRW published a report outlining various alleged abuses of human rights of mostly-South East Asian expatriate labourers in Qatar, particular in the construction sector, who HRW claims, following interviews with many such workers, had been denied their wages and lived in squalid conditions, and made to work in temperatures exceeding 40 degrees. 

Moreover, the average gross annual income in Qatar is US$80,000 (QR291,000), whereas migrant workers earn as little as US$3600 (QR13,104), according to an Equal Times Special Report Qatar, published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). 

Sharan Burrow is the general secretary of the ITUC and attended the demonstration in Doha. “For the first time in Qatar, unions were able to give migrant workers a voice and make sure they are not forgotten,” she tells The Edge. “If Qatar wants to be respected in the global community and host international events they must ensure that migrant workers have rights.”

According to Burrow, Qatar must ratify and implement International Labour Organisation standards including freedom of association and the right to collectively bargain. These encompass independent trade unions formed by workers and not those imposed by companies or governments.

These issues are increasingly being raised to prominence as Qatar’s construction sector prospects become increasingly positive following its successful bid in 2010 to stage the World Cup 2022. The country is set to spend more than US$150 billion (QR546 billion) on infrastructure projects in the next five to six years in the preparation for the World Cup. 

Yet despite the affirmative outlook, a 2012 report by the Commercial Bank of Qatar entitled Qatar Construction Sector highlights that the country is likely to face growing challenges. The government will continue to remain under pressure to complete the projects on time, and to meet the deadlines and guidelines set by the FIFA authorities. Additionally, the report states that Qatar is not completely immune to the global uncertainty in the economy could feasibly have further effect on Qatar’s economy in general and thus its construction sector plans. Any global slowdown could also impact private sector participation, as the credit environment becomes tighter. The report adds that hydrocarbon prices may also decline with additional potential impact on Qatar’s gross domestic product. Ostensibly, rising construction costs and inflation could also further influence bottom lines within the sector. 

As far as human resources are concerned, another pressing issue is a predicted increasing scarcity of both technical and labour staff, which some pundits feel will continue to be one of the biggest challenges for the construction sector and beyond. The report adds that though companies in construction sector have learned from their previous experience with events such as the Asian Games, the scale and magnitude of the projects for the World Cup 2022 will be a whole new experience for most companies here, as well as for Qatar itself.

Qatar’s labour challenge

Mohammed Al Obeidly, head of the Labour Ministry’s Legal Affairs Department said during a meeting with HRW earlier in 2012 that he estimates the number of additional workers required to complete the World Cup and related infrastructure projects range from 500,000 to more than one million migrant workers. 

This is placed in context when considering the HRW report, published in June last year, entitled Building a Better World Cup: Protecting Migrant Workers in Qatar Ahead of FIFA 2022. The report outlined the deeply problematic working conditions of migrant workers, claiming that realising Qatar’s World Cup vision may depend on their abuse and exploitation unless, immediate measures are taken to address the human rights problems, it says, are widespread in Qatar’s construction industry. The HRW report also states that Qatar does not publish information on worker injuries or fatalities, and alleges discrepencies between official figures and numbers in causes of injury and deaths on site and those released by various embassies, and suggested by their own anecdotal research says that many of these deaths are due to heart attacks caused by stress and heat stroke. 

Priyanka Motaparthy, HRW Middle East and North Africa researcher and author of the report said to the local media at a press conference in Doha in mid-2012 that Qatar’s private sector is the largest employer of migrant workers. And it is widely felt that establishing a union or unions for these workers would go a long way to ensuring their rights are upheld and Qatar’s labour laws, (which the HRW admits are adequate), are adhered to.

As part of Burrow’s recent visit to Doha, she met with the acting minister of labour Nasser Abdullah Al Hemedi, Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), the Qatar 2022 Supreme Council Committee and Qatar’s minister for Social Affairs. “After a full and frank discussion, Qatar’s labour minister said to me that he would not see any worker punished for joining a union. I hope he stands by his commitment,” continues Burrow. “We are putting the planning in place to have a presence in Doha, and the first is for the workers to form a construction union to engage with major companies building the World Cup stadium and infrastructure under contract from the FIFA 2022 Supreme Committee.”

Beyond workplace issues, the HRW report also states that construction workers paid fees up to US$3, 651 (QR13,289) to get their jobs and even take loans at high interest rates and mortgaged family property just to finance their journey to Doha, which often takes months and even years of working in Qatar to pay back. According to the report these fees are for the recruiting agencies in their countries of origin. Moreover, a Bangladeshi private recruitment agent recently told the Equal Times that in the official contract it is written that the recruitment agents have to pay the airfares of the migrant workers to travel to the country of destination, and the employers must pay the return fares. But in reality, the workers told HRW they have to pay both fares by themselves. The reason, according to the report, is that unofficial parties such as middlemen continue to dominate the recruitment process as multinational corporations and local sponsors who do not want to take responsibility for the process, and wish to avoid recruitment fees.  

Moreover, a World Bank study suggests that local recruiting agents receive a substantial portion of these fees in hidden money transfers, designed to bypass Qatari Law which prohibits Qatari agencies from charging fees. Past HRW reports in the Gulf region stated that these fees trap workers in jobs, even when employers abuse their rights, defined by United Nation’s sanctioned International Law as forced labour. 

Existing labour law

Qatar’s Labour Law, issued in 2004, highlights the maximum work hours per week, paid annual leave and end of service bonuses, requires employers to pay salaries on time, bans recruitment agencies licenced in Qatar from charging workers fees and contains provisions for workers’ health and safety. It also bans employers from confiscating passports, sets strict requirements for worker accommodation, and prohibits midday work during the intensive high heat of  the summer months. 

Nevertheless, according to the HRW report, inadequate implementation and oversight of current legal provisions mean they rarely translate to worker protection in practice and that employers pick and choose what protection to offer, with relative impunity. Burrow adds that the laws are stacked against migrant workers, the courts are costly and the labour ministry has a only handful of labour inspectors, a hotline and an e-mail address to handle thousands of complaints from workers. 

“A proper grievance procedure must be in place, which workers can access and have their cases heard quickly,” says Burrow. “Reputable recruitment agencies must be encouraged to set up in Qatar to clean up the recruitment process. Workers are not given the jobs or salaries they are promised. Their accommodation does not meet the requirements of the Qatar Labour Law and they have deductions taken from their salary to meet the costs of flights, which is supposed to be provided by the agency.” Burrow reiterates that workers must be given the right to form and join trade unions, so they are able to stand up to their employers and protect their rights and now that the attention of the world is focused on the issue due to Qatar 2022, it is the time to begin mobilising them to do so.

Qatari Reaction

The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, lead by secretary general Hassan Al Thawadi, were unable to meet with the organisation’s representatives while they were in Doha due to a prior committment with the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). But before the report was published, in reaction to the HRW findings, they released a statement (which was also included in said report): “We do realise there is much work to be done…We will work closely with other government departments…who like the Supreme Committee are committed to improving the conditions and rights of migrant workers, ensuring they are treated with dignity and respect, and providing a safe and secure working environment. “In light of this, we are currently in the process of determining the requirements that companies competing for contracts relating to the work of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee must adhere to concerning living and working conditions for migrant workers.” In further reaction to the HRW report, a Qatari lawyer was quoted in local media as saying that the Gulf region has involuntarily opened itself up to these accusations of violating workers rights and other exaggerated claims. He continued by saying that it goes back to the Gulf states being so relaxed about importing labour and opening the gates of immigration to foreign countries and stating that no society has ever seen such a concentration of expatriate workers being welcomed with open arms.

Mohamed bin Ahmed Tawar Al Kuwari, vice-chairman of Qatar’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry was also quoted in the local media. “The countries that are asking us to comply with international human rights norms, themselves, need to repair their record on that front,” he said. Speaking of allegations of substandard living conditions at labour accommodations, Al Kuwari countered that such criticisms are baseless because Qatari labour inspectors conduct regular raids on labour camps and that the Labour Ministry does not issue work visas unless workers’ lodgings comply with specified standards.

In May 2012 local media cited Labour undersecretary Hussein Al Mulla in saying that the government is considering the establishment of a Qatari-led labour committee to advocate for workers’ rights, and that the government would replace the sponsorship system with a contract between the employer and the worker. At the time of writing the Qatari authorities had not yet offered any further comment or  specific indication of when this may be implemented. 

Towards 2022

According to the HRW, if Qatar is to avoid human rights abuses while building a world class stadiums, ambitious transportation links, and upscale hotels within a tight timeframe then it should meaningfully enforce their current laws protecting workers’ rights, and should amend laws to meet international labour and human rights standards by allowing migrant workers to exercise their rights to free association and collective bargaining. 

In November 2011, Jerome Valcke, secretary general of FIFA stated after a meeting with the ITUC. “FIFA upholds the respect for human rights and the application of international norms of behaviour as a principle and part of all our activities…FIFA and ITUC will work jointly in the next few months to address labour issues with the Qatari authorities.” 

Valcke also agreed to add labour-related criteria to the bidding process of future FIFA World Cups, in addition to FIFA’s corporate social responsibility commitment to include the aim to use its influence to help make “positive impacts” through football. At the time of writing, more than a year hence from the above statement, there has been no further public recognition from FIFA on the matter that The Edge could get access to. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, visited Doha as recently as last month, and according to an article on the organisation’s website the sentiment was expressed that all was still on track for Qatar 2022.

Ultimately, whether or not the migrant worker human rights abuses in Qatar are as widespread as the HRW says they are in its report will remain topical for some time. However, what is clear that Qatar, and especially its construction industry, faces a challenge, in either resolving any issues there may be on the ground, or in convincing the world that it is doing all it can to ensure that international standards here are being adhered to in the lead up to its hosting the world largest sporting event in less than decade.

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