Migrant worker rights: Pressure and promises in Qatar

Migrant worker rights: Pressure and promises in Qatar
Qatar pledges to make reforms after Amnesty International reports little to no progress in rights for foreign labourers.
4 min read
12 November, 2014
Qatar's skyline has been constructed by migrant labourers [Getty]

Amnesty International reported on Wednesday that progress in Qatar to address exploitation of migrant workers had been "woefully insufficient".

The Amnesty report, No extra time: How Qatar is still failing on workers' rights ahead of the World Cup, came a day after the Qatari government proposed a law to annul the controversial "sponsorship system" and improve conditions of foreign labourers.

Qatari officials referred the draft law to the country's Consultative Assembly and said the new legislation is expected to take effect by the end of year.
The Amnesty statement and the government's proposed law both come in the wake of promises by the Qatari authorities six months ago to reform the laws for the migrant workforce. The emir had previously said he was "personally hurt by the situation".

'No progress'

Analysing nine specific areas critical to migrants' rights, the latest Amnesty report concluded that no prgress at all had been made on five issues, and only partial progress in the remaining four.

"The Qatari government can't claim to be in the dark about this," Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty's Gulf migrant rights researcher, told al-Araby al-Jadeed. "But it is important to emphasise that it is not too late to address these human rights issues."

     It is important to emphasise that it is not too late to address these human rights issues.
- Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty

The awarding of the 2022 football World Cup to Qatar has resulted in the spotlight being shone on a number of systems and practices prevalent in the region that enable and sustain the abuse of migrant workers. Stories of forced labour, physical and sexual abuse in the workplace and gruelling work conditions are ubiquitous in the Gulf.

Most notable among these is the sponsorship system, known as Kafala, which ties workers to their employers and puts them at risk of forced labour. One of the most notorious aspects of this arrangement is the "exit visa", which can leave exploited workers stranded and unable to leave the country.

All foreign workers in Qatar, whether professional managers or building site labourers, must apply for this permission to leave the country.

Promised reforms

In May 2014, the Qatari Ministry of Interior announced that it would replace the Kafala system and exit visa as part of a package of reforms. Campaigners, however, had demanded much more than this concession - and Amnesty's most recent findings suggest there has yet to be any tangible progress on repealing the system.

"This exposure could bring not just pressure but also an opportunity," said Amnesty's Mustafa Qadri. "These issues are endemic in the region and this gives Qatar a chance to lead the way in change. They should not compare themselves to the very poor standards in the region but to the international standards which they themselves have agreed to abide by."

    What does Amnesty want?
- The abolishment of the exit visa,
- An independent investigation into hundreds of migrant workers' deaths,
- The dropping of prohibitive legal fees for disgruntled workers,
- The publication of names of exploitative recruiters and employers,
- The granting to domestic workers the same labour rights and legal protection as afforded to other workers.

Qatar has acknowledged the gravity of the problem and taken a lead among Gulf states in at least proposing alternatives to the current arrangement. The bone of contention lies in the depth of reforms and the commitment displayed to actually enforcing them. 

Qatar's Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Abdullah Saleh al-Khulaifi Khulaifi, said the proposed law includes financial rights for workers that require salaries to be transferred into bank accounts at the end of the month. The controversial exit visas will be abolished and replaced with an electronic system, he said.

Colonel Abdullah al-Mohannadi, director of the interior ministry's human rights department, said the most important change to the new laws was the end of the kafala system. A new labour contract system will also be introduced.

While the focus of attention is on the Qatari authorities, other stakeholders also have a role to play in preventing the exploitation of workers.

"Under human rights standards and the law, the state has the primary obligation - however, businesses and corporations involved in the World Cup must also share in the blame. We need to be putting pressure on all of the stakeholders," explained Mustafa Qadri.

The governments and embassies of those countries from which the hoards of migrant workers travel also have collective bargaining power to protect their citizens rights.

While some governments have tried to apply pressure, there has been little cooperation between the main states involved.

"Countries like Qatar can't survive without the migrant labour pool, so these states really do have collective power if they were to use it effectively," said Qadri.

As many as 85 percent of Qatar's residents are thought to be workers from overseas.

The scale of the problem is widely documented and the steps that can be taken to address it have been clearly outlined. As the World Cup draws closer, scrutiny is only going to increase over the treatment of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers making the event a reality - and the promises of the Qatari government to deliver them their rights.