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Has the Gulf cleaned up its act before Qatar 2022? (JMD quoted in The World Weekly)

A lack of transparency persists when it comes to migrant workers’ rights, a new report has found. But who is to blame?

The plight of migrant workers in Gulf Arab countries was thrown into the spotlight several years ago when investigations revealed how dismal the working and housing conditions were for those building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Countless human rights violations were reported, revealing a dark side to the ‘beautiful game’.

The kafala sponsorship system, which is in place throughout the region, is widely seen as a source of exploitation. Migrant workers have reported confiscated passports, held back wages and employers’ refusal to grant exit visas.

Under heightened public pressure, governments and companies pledged to improve the situation. The emir of Qatar approved new rules to the sponsorship system, supposed to make it easier to change jobs and being able to leave the country. How much has really changed?

A new report on construction companies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, both major employers of migrant labour with large infrastructure projects underway, indicates the problem persists. “Construction companies operating in the Gulf are failing to protect migrant workers from abusive working arrangements, showing a concerning lack of transparency on the safeguards they have in place,” the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre said. Out of 100 companies, only 22 responded to a survey regarding the measures they are taking to stop the exploitation of migrant workers. Less than half of them had publicly available human rights commitments.

Speaking to The World Weekly, the NGO’s press officer, Joe Bardwell, was unequivocal about the importance of transparency, calling the fact that companies are not demonstrating their commitment a “major problem”.

“Transparency on human rights issues has been an important driver of progress in other sectors,” the report notes, pointing to the establishment of best practices. Several of those who failed to respond are involved in the construction of World Cup stadiums and three had received an award for excellence in labour relations in the UAE.

The lack of engagement “indicates not much action has been taken”, Mr. Bardwell said. This did not mean that there aren’t companies that are taking action and are not sharing it, he added, while stating that some companies were indeed leading the way in establishing best practices.

The suicide in September of an Indian construction worker at a building site in Qatar weeks after asking his employer to pay outstanding wages showed once again how precarious the situation of many migrant workers remains, especially amidst a downturn in oil prices hitting the energy-dependent countries in the Gulf.

For Dr. James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, it was clear that companies don’t feel compelled to engage, as there was “little pressure” on them, not least from FIFA in the case of World Cup host Qatar.

Both the UAE and Qatar were the countries that have taken the most steps in the region to address migrant workers’ rights, Dr. Dorsey, who runs a blog on the entanglement between football and politics in the Middle East, noted. Nevertheless, a lack of implementation in Qatar showed that neither the government nor FIFA have applied sufficient pressure to enforce mandated standards. The situation in the UAE was similar, he said.

"For players and fans, a World Cup stadium is a place of dreams. For some of the workers who spoke to us, it can feel like a living nightmare.”

Salil Shetty, Amnesty International secretary general

As violations of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar and allegations of corruption made the headlines, the international football body faced increasing pressure to act; some even called for Qatar’s hosting rights to be suspended.

While seeing the government as the body primarily responsible for creating and implementing rules, Dr. Dorsey said FIFA had a responsibility as well. The organisation, mired by corruption scandals, earlier this year endorsed a report by John Ruggie, a former UN special representative for business and human rights. “FIFA is fully committed to respecting human rights,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said, thanking Professor Ruggie for his recommendations on how to improve the body’s human rights record.

Despite these assurances, news broke this week that legal action against FIFA was filed in a Swiss court on behalf of a Bangladeshi migrant worker. “The Swiss court is asked to rule that FIFA acted wrongfully by selecting Qatar for the World Cup 2022 without demanding the assurance that Qatar observes fundamental human and labour rights of migrant construction workers, including the abolition of the kafala system,” a statement by the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation read.

Mr. Bardwell saw companies as responsible, while also highlighting that there had not been enough pressure from all sides.

“The awarding of the World Cup has already induced change,” Dr. Dorsey said, stating that Qatar was the only state in the Gulf region that had engaged with its critics. While praising the Qatari foundations for the policies they have adopted on migrant workers as a “start”, he urged that more needs to be done.

In the current global environment where labour rights are being put on the back burner, progress going forward looks doubtful, he concluded.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre expected more engagement after the release of the report. “Scrutiny is only going to increase,” Mr. Bardwell told The World Weekly.

Manuel Langendorf

INSIGHT 08 December 2016

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