(JMD in The International Journal of the History of Sport)
By James M. Dorsey
Senior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Co-director, Institute of Fan Culture, University of Wuerzburg, Wuerzburg, Germany
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and two forthcoming books on the Middle East and North Africa.
Key words: sports; labour rights; Qatar; Gulf; trade unions; security; defence;
The controversial awarding to Qatar of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the world’s most important sporting event alongside the Olympic Games, has emerged as a potential monkey wrench for social and political change. The tournament has to the Qataris’ surprise given international trade unions, human rights groups and a reluctant governing world soccer body, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), leverage they lacked prior to the awarding of the event to pressure Qatar to radically reform the Gulf state’s long-criticized labour system. It has also offered critics of the awarding a stick with which to beat Qatar. In response, Qatar has pledged significant reform in a bid to secure achievement of its soft and subtle power goals and fend off demands that would fundamentally alter its political and social structures. In doing so, it is walking a tightrope, balancing the soft power-dictated need to embed itself favourably at multiple levels in the international community and defeat the mounting threat of losing the right to host the World Cup with maintaining a socially and politically restrictive system whose long-term viability is being called into question.
Demographics, demographics, demographics
Demographics is what distinguishes problems of labour migration to the Gulf, and particularly Qatar, from work-related migratory movements elsewhere in the world. Long-standing concern about the working and living conditions of foreign labour in the region alongside allegations of Qatari vote buying in its successful to host the 2022 World Cup have shot to the top of the agenda of world soccer body FIFA.
Foreigners constitute a majority in several Gulf states; others barely have a majority of local nationals. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nationals account for less than half of the population in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Nowhere are the demographics starker than in Qatar where the citizenry constitutes at best 12 percent of the population. Qatar’s’ demographic deficit is likely to become even more pronounced in coming years with an expected influx of an additional one million migrant workers needed for the construction of vast infrastructure projects, some of which are directly related to the hosting of the World Cup. These include the construction of at least eight stadia, 70,000 hotel rooms, a city to provide for 200,000 residents, and a road network at an estimated cost of US$97 billion.
Labour migration in this demographic environment takes on a different meaning from anywhere else in the world where local nationals constitute a majority of the population. Labour migrants are always contract workers, never immigrants. No Gulf state with the exception of Saudia Arabia has included a naturalization process in its legislation albeit with a high threshold. The relatively few citizenships that have been granted in the decades since independence were issued by Cabinet decree and almost exclusively to Arabs rather than non-Arabs. Workers and expatriates have no expectation of being able to stay in their host country beyond the term of their contract.
For much of their existence as independent states, Qatar and other Gulf states could pretty much treat foreign workers as they pleased. Supplying countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were happy to reduce unemployment by exporting labour and build foreign currency reserves with workers’ remittances. Reports in the media and by human rights groups regularly highlighted the plight of foreign workers in the Gulf but failed to mobilize sustained and effective calls for change. Lack of interest in the international community allowed Qatar and other Gulf states moreover to replace over time politically risky Arabs, including Egyptians, Yemenis and Palestinians, who initially were more likely to hold anti-monarchical and revolutionary and in more recent times Islamist views with more manageable South Asians who had less of a stake in the region with no enforcement of international labour standards. Asians who by and large do not speak Arabic were furthermore easier than Arabs to segregate from the Qatari population.
Source: The Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011, World Bank
In a break with its segregation policy, Qatar in 2013 organized a cup for foreign workers’ soccer teams organized by their employers. The cup served to shatter the notion that encouraging soccer would give workers something that would lead them to sprouting roots in their host country. A year later, Qatar Star League (QSL), the country’s top league was debating organizing a Super Cup, in which among others the national champion as well as the winner of the Workers’ Cup would compete, a first step in bring the Qatari and foreign community together as part of a policy that aimed to encourage some degree of interaction between the country’s Qatari and non-Qatari population. Qatari sociologist Kaltham Al-Ghanim moreover called on the country’s sports clubs to set up branches in the Industrial Zone “to channel their energy to productive avenues and hunt for sporting talent.” 
The awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar followed three years later by Dubai’s winning of the right to host the 2020 World Expo for the first time generated pressure on Qatar and the Gulf states and put their labour conditions under a sustained spotlight that they no longer could ignore with impunity. It also gave activists for the first time the leverage they had hitherto lacked to effectively pressure governments as well as major corporations. This was particularly true for trade unions led by the Brussels-based International Trade Unions Confederation (ITUC), which unlike human rights groups who wield primarily moral authority claims to have 175 million members, many of whom are soccer fans, in 161 countries. The activists benefitted from the fact that public opinion in many parts of the world doubted the integrity of the Qatari bid because of a massive corruption scandal in world soccer that implicated some of its most senior officials, including FIFA vice president and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed Bin Hammam. A Qatari national, Bin Hammam was banned for life from involvement in professional soccer by FIFA in 2013 after a long and bitter legal battle.
Caught off guard
The corruption scandal coupled with concern about the viability of holding the Cup in Qatar’s extreme summer temperatures and at times biased assertions that the Gulf state lacked the size, soccer history and demography to host the tournament sparked a sea change in attitudes towards the plight of foreign workers of governments in many parts of the world that prior to the awarding of the Cup did not care but that could not no longer claim that they did not know about the conditions under which their nationals were working. That potentially explains why the sudden concern about the plight of foreign workers caught Qatar as well as FIFA off guard. Instead of being feted as the first Arab state to host one of the world’s most significant sporting events Qatar confronted an avalanche of criticism, much of it justified but much of it also reflective of envy of its financial muscle and derogatory about its young history as an independent, small desert state with little soccer history.
“When Qatar was pulled from the envelope in Zurich on December 2nd (2010), amid all the celebrations and joy, we knew that the work was only just beginning. What we did not know or expect was the avalanche of accusations and allegations that we would face in the immediate aftermath of what was a historic day for sport in our country and for the wider region. I’m sure all of you in this audience are well aware of the very tough challenges we have faced since our success last December. Baseless accusations were made against our bid. We were presumed guilty before innocent without a shred of evidence being provided. I want to reiterate to all of you that we conducted our bid to the highest ethical and moral standards. We are immensely proud of the bid that we submitted to FIFA. One that outlined a bold legacy for football development not just in Qatar, but across the Middle East,” Hassan al Thawadi, secretary of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee that was later restyled as the Qatar Supreme Committee for Legacy and Delivery told a Leaders in Football conference in 2011.
Qatari and for that matter FIFA surprise at the intensity of the criticism of Qatar’s successful bid and its labour system nonetheless highlighted fundamental problems in the criteria for the awarding of mega events by international sport associations as well as with the environment in which event hosts operate: the absence of human rights in the awarding criteria in line with the associations’ professed values and of fans’ lack of concern before the uproar over the integrity of the Qatari bid and the conditions under which workers would be building World Cup infrastructure in the Gulf state. Mass anti-government protests in 2013 in Brazil that targeted FIFA’s heavy handed imposition of its own terms on host countries and questioned the government’s expenditure on World Cup infrastructure as well as the key role of soccer fans in popular revolts in North Africa and Turkey, although unrelated to the foreign workers’ issue in Qatar, served as a warning that FIFA and other sport associations no longer could remain oblivious to public opinion.
“FIFA and the IOC will never be properly managed, because fans don't really care. If England wins the Qatar World Cup, nobody will give two hoots whether the tournament was built on slave labour and bungs. Even the possibility of winning will be enough to sweep ethical concerns aside as the tournament draws near, while anything short will be treated, as usual, as a national catastrophe,” wrote The Daily Telegraph journalist Ed Cumming days after his newspaper disclosed another series of eyebrow-raising payments between senior FIFA officials who have since effectively been banned from involvement in soccer. It was not immediately evident that those payments were related to the Qatari bid, but they fuelled renewed public questioning of Qatar. That was equally true for more damaging allegations of bribery in the Qatari bid published three months later by British newspaper The Sunday Times, which said it had millions of documents to back up its assertions.
Theo Zwanziger, the senior FIFA official dealing with the Qatar labour issue, nonetheless conceded in testimony to the European parliament that “we need to rethink this and give human rights a much higher status.”
Pressure meanwhile mounted on Qatar with an increasing number of media reports led by coverage in Britain’s The Guardian of an increasing number of deaths of primarily Nepalese and Indian workers. The ITUC, Qatar’s harshest critic, predicted that up to 4,000 workers would lose their lives in constructing World Cup-related infrastructure. Some 400 Nepalese reportedly died between. 2012 and 2014. The Indian embassy in Doha reported that more than 500 Indian workers had died in Qatar in the last two years. Indians account for 22% of the estimated 1.2 million workers in Qatar.
The reports left multiple questions unanswered, including lack of clarity on how many of the deaths were work-related although that was likely to be a majority. Workers often do not have a precise understanding of the conditions they will be working under nor do they undergo a proper health check before their departure for Qatar. Deaths are frequently certified as resulting from a heart condition even if it involved a work-related incident because that entails less bureaucracy and allows companies and authorities to fend off investigations and post-mortems.
That state of affairs was implicitly reflected in a study in the Journal of Arabian Studies that listed late wages, significant debts accrued to pay labour brokers, and inconsistent access to healthcare as common problems encountered by foreign workers in Qatar. Funded by the Qatar National Research Fund, the study, entitled ‘A Portrait of Low-Income Migrants in Contemporary Qatar’, said that 56 percent of the workers interviewed reported not having received a government-mandated Hamad health card, needed to access free healthcare. Qatar University meanwhile reported that the vast majority of employers in Qatar illegally confiscated workers’ passport at the outset of their employment even though it violates the provisions of the kafala or sponsorship system that puts workers at the mercy of their employers will little opportunity for redress.
Source: Arab Studies Journal
Against this backdrop, ITUC’s Secretary General Sharan Burrow warned in 2013 that “in the next few months the contracts for the new World Cup stadia and infrastructure will be announced. Millions more workers will be hired from overseas for the road, rail and building infrastructure for the World Cup. We are putting multi-national companies tendering for these contracts on notice to abide by international law and respect workers’ rights.”
Britain’s powerful GMB trade union called in October 2013 on British construction companies active in Qatar and particularly those bidding for 2022 World Cup-related projects not to exploit cheap migrant labour. In a letter to the chief executive officers of 13 British companies, GMB international officer Bert Schouwenberg said: “We believe that UK companies have a particular responsibility to ensure that their Qatar-based employees, regardless of their nationality, and their sub-contractors' employees enjoy terms and conditions within globally accepted standards of 'decent work' as laid down by organizations such as the International Labour Organization." He charged that workers in Qatar "face quite appalling conditions, are treated little better than slaves and live in unacceptable squalid accommodation". The letter was addressed among others to the construction manager of London's Shard skyscraper, Mace, Heathrow Terminal Five builder Laing O' Rourke, FTSE 250 group Kier, Balfour Beatty which is advising Qatar on a $1 billion highways project and Interserve that was awarded $100 million worth of contracts to help the Gulf state exploit its vast natural gas reserves.
Beyond the reputational damage suffered by Qatar as a result of the trade union and human rights campaign, Qatar also is also hurt economically by its labour system despite the obvious advantages of cheap labour and a politically malleable work force. A study by researchers of Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar concluded that the cost of maintaining the labour system went beyond reputational damage. The researchers concluded that Qatar would be near the top of the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI) if adjustments were made for the country’s large population of migrant workers. With other words, the system undercuts Qatar’s effort to project the Gulf state as a cutting edge, 21st century knowledge-based society.
Running the gamut
Union and NGO demands for reform of Qatar’s labour system ran the social and political gamut from housing and working conditions to restricted legal rights under the kafala or sponsorship system prevalent throughout the Gulf that puts workers at the mercy of their sponsors to the right to form independent trade unions and bargain collectively. The demands positioned the World Cup as a potential agent of social and political change. Unlike in the past when Qatar and other Gulf states could effectively ignore criticism, the Gulf state realized that engagement was the only way of achieving its goal of using the World Cup to build the soft power it needed to compensate for its lack of military hard power.
The tournament embedded in an effort to build a sports sector from A to Z was designed to project Qatar as a forward-looking, cutting edge 21st century society that commands the soft power that goes with it. Qataris realized the value of soft power after Kuwait in 1990 rallied the international community to come to its aid to reverse Iraq’s wholesale occupation of the country.
They also realized that the then existing Saudi defence umbrella would be unable to protect them. They further understood that they would be unable to defend their small, population-starved state that was virtually sandwiched between conservative Saudi Arabia with whom they share their only land border and revolutionary Iran across the Gulf with whom they share the world’s largest gas field no matter how many sophisticated weapon systems they acquired and how many foreigners they drafted into their armed and security forces. The sports effort was part of a larger policy to project Qatar that includes the creation in the 1990s of the state-owned Al Jazeera network that put Qatar on the map and transformed the region‘s media landscape. The development of Qatar Airways as a world-class airline helped establish Qatar as a hub linking continents. The luring of some of the world‘s foremost universities to establish campuses in the Gulf state and the building of cutting edge museums and massive art purchases were all part of Qatar’s projection. All of this allowed Qatar to project itself as an island of stability, modernity and progress in a sea of volatility and conservatism.
The emergence of the World Cup as a potential agent of change served the purpose of young progressive Qataris who saw it as the vehicle they needed much like Turkey long viewed European Union membership as the straightjacket that would enable it to enact reforms. They saw the labour in terms expressed by a US inter-agency assessment of Qatar that preceded its winning of the World Cup. The assessment concluded that “the pace of reform will depend on how Qatar deals with the influx of foreign workers and the societal changes caused by rapid progress.” Engagement with trade unions, human rights groups and the International Labour Organization (ILO) was intended to fend off demands that would radically alter the country‘s social and political system however as much as it was to control change and achieve soft power.
As a result, Qataris focused on the material living and working conditions of foreign labour while evading discussion of the kafala system and proposing government-controlled workers’ councils as an alternative to free trade unions and collective bargaining. The US assessment of Qatar appeared to predict that approach, arguing that “there are powerful economic incentives to paying expatriate workers low wages and providing them with few services. Influential Qataris have an economic interest in the existing system, and this will be difficult to reverse.” A separate embassy cable notes that “threats of increased criminal and/or collective labour activity by third-country workers” are among the top four priorities of Qatar’s intelligence services.
Ray Jureidini, a sociologist and migration expert at Beirut’s Lebanese American University, who advised the Qatar Foundation on its adoption of standards noted that abolishing the kafala system would amount to a significant overhaul of the Qatari economy. “The kafala system exists as part of an effort by Qataris to retain control of their country. Abolishing the system means opening up a labour market in a country where there is no labour market. The requirement for an exit visa is partly the result of Qatar not having extradition treaties with a lot of countries and wanting to prevent those who break the law from simply skipping the country,” Jureidini said.
Abolishing the kafala system would also pull the rug on fundamental policies designed to ensure
Qatari control of their state and society and preservation of their culture by effectively segregating Qataris and non-Qataris among whom first and foremost are unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Citing the need to protect families, Qatar bars bachelors, a reference to primarily male Asian workers who left their families behind in their home countries, foreign workers from living in family residential areas and from visiting shopping malls or the bazaar on ‘family days.’ A law signed by Tamim as crown prince mandates that employers must house their workers in designated areas.
Some scholars as well as government critics including Qatari activist and author Ali Khalifa al Kuwari, charge that the demographic imbalance serves the Al Thani’s purpose because it avoids the creation of an indigenous working class that would have strong grounds to demand its rights, replacing it with imported labour that has no illusion of ever becoming naturalized citizens. “The great influx of immigrant workers, regardless of how necessary they are, is a benefit to the ruler, who is keen to treat people as temporary and readily disposable, rather than as citizens with all their attendant rights,” Al Kuwari said in an interview with Germany’s Heinrich Boell Stiftung. He noted that the number of Qatari nationals as a percentage of the total population had dropped from 40 percent in 1970 to 12 percent in 2010. As a result, Qataris dropped from accounting for 14 percent of the work force in 2001 to a mere six percent in 2014. If population projections of five million inhabitants in 2022 used, according to Al Kuwari, for Qatar’s multi-billion dollar metro and railway projects are correct, the percentage of Qatari nationals would drop even more dramatically.
Source: United Nations 2009
“If Qataris are unable to apply pressure to halt this growing imbalance and begin gradual reform, their natural position at the head of society will fall away and they will be rendered incapable of reforming the other and newer problems. Indeed, they will be transformed into a deprived and marginalized minority in their own land. The perpetuation of this growing imbalance threatens to uproot Qatari society, to erase its identity and culture, to take its mother tongue, Arabic, out of circulation, and erode the role of its citizens in owning and running their own country,” he warned .
A report by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies, ‘Foreign Labor and Questions of Identity in the Arabian Gulf,’ concluded that fears that any degree of integration of foreigners would threaten family-run Qatar’s political, cultural and social identity made change unlikely.
Source: Arab Center for Research & Policy Studiesl
“The issues touches upon the essence of the question of the transition towards a ‘citizenship society. … In the absence of the establishment of a modern state based on the bond of citizenship, justice, the rule of law, and equal opportunity among all components of society, it is extremely difficult to assimilate immigrants. … The Gulf countries, due to the delay in the construction of the modern state on the institutional, legal and constitutional levels, have extreme difficulties integrating the population of their home societies – let alone assimilating immigrants,” the report said.
The Gulf state, irrespective of the analysis of the reasons and purpose of its labour import policy, was fighting a rear-guard, uphill battle not only because its critics were unlikely to settle for less than abolishing the kafala system but also because as much as Qatar sought to introduce real and at times revolutionary change of workers’ material conditions it failed to quickly match words with deeds and refused to proactively and transparently communicate reforms it was introducing as well as details of its controversial bid.
Qatar’s initial response was the publishing of a workers’ charter by 2022 Committee. The charter was full of lofty words and good intentions but failed to translate those into practice. The committee, in its rebranded life as the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy corrected that by adopting in early 2014 principles that had been earlier embedded in a charter issued a year earlier by the Qatar Foundation (QF), the state charity driving educational and social development. It published on the eve of the European parliament hearing in which Zwanziger testified a 50-page document setting out standards for workers to be incorporated in all World-Cup-related contracts. The environment ministry’s standardisation affairs department published in early April 2014 a handbook for the accommodation of foreign workers at constructions as well as housing sites took centre stage following visits organized by the ITUC.
The various documents – the 2022 Committee and the Qatar Foundation charters as well as the contractual and housing standards -- focused on workers’ material conditions rather than political demands in part because neither the committee nor the foundation had the authority to issue nationally binding norms and standards and in part in the hope that significant improvement of worker’s well-being would shield Qatar from reforming its social system or enlightened political autocracy in ways that would fundamentally the country’s social and political structure.
At the same time, Qatari officials have suggested that the kafala system would be reformed in due course. Those changes were likely to entail shifting sponsorship of foreign workers from individual employers to the government. They would also allow workers to seek alternative employment without permission of their sponsor after a period of notification. Qatar would further work with the major supplying countries to establish regulated employment agencies to cut out corrupt middlemen.
Home to Qatari progressives conscious of the need for change, the Committee and the Foundation hoped to become role models whose norms would under pressure from the unions and activists e adopted nationally. ”It is QF’s aspiration that these Standards initiate a snowballing process towards transforming workers’ quality of life and thus set an exemplary model for treatment of workers nationwide,” the Foundation’s document drafted as a legal agreement said.
The Foundation rather than the committee took the lead by seeking to address not only abominable living and working conditions once migrant labour arrived in Qatar but also the recruitment process, one of the most onerous phases of the migration cycle. Fees and commissions charged to workers for their recruitment and travel to Qatar by frequently unethical middlemen and kickbacks of on average $600 per head to corrupt company human resource executives meant that workers were several thousand dollars in debt that they needed to pay off with meagre salaries of a few hundred dollars a month by the time they stepped off the plane at Doha Airport.
Figure 1: Recruitment cycle as depicted by India’s Ministry of Overseas Indian Afiairs (Source: Mary Breeding/World Bank)
In her research in India, World Bank official Mary Breeding “discovered that there are multiple structures, institutions, and processes for labour migrants, recruitment agencies and employers to use in the process of emigrating to the Gulf. There is a legal structure outlined by the ministry (The Emigration Act, 1983, Section 10). There are also the institutions and processes described by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Afiairs’s website. The process in Figure 1 (above) is the legal process of recruitment. There are also several alternatives ways operating openly, even advertised daily in newspapers. The most common alternative form of recruitment is through a sub-agent or “consultant” to a registered recruitment agency. While there are a limited number of formally registered recruitment agents (app. 1835), there are thousands of sub-agents.”
Breeding noted that only one of the recruitment agents she interviewed adhered to the maximum fees chargeable to employees of IRs. 10,000 ($200). All other recruiters she spoke to cited figures between Rs. 40,000 and Rs. 50,000 $800-$1000). The costs are intended to cover passport, visa, emigration clearance fees, airline tickets, mandatory medical exam, and recruitment agent fees. “If a subcontractor is involved, he will also charge an additional fee. The overall costs charged to a job candidate ultimately depend on who pays for what: the recruitment agent, the employer, or the job candidate. In the worst case scenario, the burden is entirely placed on the job candidate to cover all fees for traveling abroad. With the one exception of the government recruitment agency I interviewed, job candidates applying to other agencies always end up paying between four and five times more than the maximum a recruitment agent can charge.” Breeding wrote.
Figure 2: Recruitment reality as depicted by Mary Breeding
As a result, the Foundation mandated that no worker should pay for his or her recruitment. The Foundation went a step further by sending experts to the major Asian suppliers of Qatar’s foreign labour – Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh -- to explore ways of rooting out corruption in the recruitment process, including the involvement of unregistered or unlicensed sub-agents, exploitation of knowledge of workers recruited in remote villages and false promise made to those recruited or failure to make full disclosures. The experts concluded that the Foundation and ultimately the state had three options: organizing its own recruitment process from A to Z; working with national employment agencies despite the problem of corruption affecting many of them; or working with a small number of private sector employment agencies that uphold ethical standards. The Foundation has so far taken its time in deciding which of the options it would pursue. In its version of the standards, the Committee said a template for contracts with recruitment agencies would have to be registered with the Qatari labour ministry.
The standards further addressed a host of issues that were at the core of the criticism of Qatar. They included assurances that workers’ passports would not be confiscated by their sponsors; ensuring timely payment of wages; guarantees that workers would not be penalized for filing complaints; a hotline for workers to file complaints; health, safety and security standards; provisions for adequate housing; hiring of a company worker welfare officer; and a four-tier monitoring and enforcement system. Improved standards are significant given that lower skill labour that is attracted to the Gulf hails from rural rather than urban areas in South Asia where wages are often similar to those in the Gulf. Breeding noted that one recruitment manager she interviewed “captured the essence of many interviews, noting the need to recruit in rural areas as a result of increases in wages of Indian workers in urban areas relative to wages of workers in the Gulf.” She added that “out of the ten employers (in Qatar) I interviewed only three realized that working with subagents is illegal, and none of them were really versed in the legal framework for recruitment established by the Indian government.”
In adopting their standards, the Committee and the Foundation were ahead of the labour ministry even if critics of Qatar’s labour system conceded that rules and regulations effecting worker conditions contain much that is positive. The ministry appears to have focused its contribution on improving enforcement of rules and regulations that was spotty because of a lack of inspectors and supervisors and parroted the Foundation and the Committee’s standards in a series of statements. It said in March 2014 that it had significantly hiked its number of inspectors, sanctioned 2,000 companies in 2013 and another 500 since the beginning of 2014 for labour law violations and taken steps to improve workers’ access to healthcare and their ability to file complaints.
Qatari hopes that the charters and standards would deflate criticism were quickly dashed despite declarations by the ILO and Amnesty International they constituted a step forward but noted that there was much more that Qatar needed to do, including address kafala system.
The ITUC charged in a statement that the committee’s standards “do not deliver fundamental rights for workers and merely reinforce the discredited kafala (sponsorship) system of employer control over workers.” The union criticized details of the standards but reserved its harshest criticism for the committee’s failure to address the sponsorship system as such or its more political demands for workers’ rights to form independent unions and engage in collective bargaining. These critics noted further that standards would stand and fall with their enforcement.
The ITUC rejected labour ministry supervision of adherence to the standards because it had failed to date to stop the charging of fees by middlemen even though they violate Qatari law. “Not a single change has been made or recommended to Qatar’s laws that deny workers their fundamental rights. No workplace voice or representative is allowed for migrant workers in Qatar. A worker welfare officer appointed by the employer is no substitute for a duly nominated worker representative,” the ITUC statement said. It dismissed the standards as an “old, discredited self-monitoring system which has failed in the past in Bangladesh and other countries where thousands of workers have died” – an apparent reference to Bangladesh’s textile industry that has witnessed multiple incidents as a result of unenforced standards. ITUC secretary general said a year earlier that the labour ministry received on average 6,000 complaints a year involving employers’ refusal to give end-of-service benefits and delays in paying or refusal to pay wages, many of which were not acted on.
Denouncing the standards as ”a sham,” the union asserted further that the standards provided for only one social worker for every 3500 employees did not provide details of how complaints would be handled or who would manage the hotline; failed to set up a system to record workers’ deaths and ensure autopsies; did not express the intention to prosecute contractors for breaches; and made no reference to Qatar’s high summer temperatures. “Qatar has to change its laws, nothing else will do,” the statement quoted Burrow as saying.
In responding to the criticism, Qatar officials drew a distinction between the approach of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and human rights groups, which were involved in the drafting of the standards, and that of the ITUC which they said seemed keener on exploiting the situation to its advantage rather than engaging constructively to reach a mutually acceptable solution.
The credibility of the ITUC’s confrontational approach that position it as the bad guy in a good cop-bad cop division of labour among activists was dented in March 2014 when it charged that the World Cup committee was not living up to its own standards. The confederation made the accusation based on a visit to a stadium that turned out to belong to a local club and that did not fall under the committee’s authority.
Qatar nevertheless failed to capitalize on this. Its long-awaited announcement of legal changes to the kafala system raised more questions than providing answers, was muddled by contradictory statements by Qatari officials and persuaded FIFA president Sepp Blatter to cancel a visit to Qatar. The confusion stemmed from the fact that the reforms appeared to involve a refinement of the kafala system such as easing restrictions on exit visas and workers’ ability to change jobs rather than an overall overhaul or abolition as the government had suggested earlier.
It was further fuelled by the announcement that future labour contracts would have to be in line with a model contract drafted by the government, the terms of which have yet to be disclosed. It compounded the fact that Qatar in the way it announced the measures failed to convey sincerity by having a senior Cabinet official disclose the changes rather than a senior military officer in uniform. Also fuelling doubts was the fact that the reforms have yet to be sent the Qatari Chamber of Commerce and approved by the Shura or Advisory Council. It was not clear how long that process would take.
The announced reforms based on a report by law firm DLA Piper that was commissioned by the government would apply to all workers, including domestics ones. They entailed allowing workers with a fixed-term contract to seek new employment without having to first leave the country or seek permission from their initial employer only at the end of their contract. They would however not lift the ban on breaking their contract without their employer’s permission.
The reforms further included:
An increase of the penalty for employers who illegally confiscate workers’ passports;
Forcing employers to pay wages electronically to ensure on time payment;
Enforcing as yet undisclosed standards for workers’ accommodation;
Streamlining rather than abolishing the requirement for workers to acquire an exit visa before leaving the country. Instead of having to seek their employers consent before departure, workers would apply through an automated system operated by the interior ministry.
If Qatar has been reactive rather than proactive in addressing labour issues, countries supplying workers have been lax in standing up for the rights of their nationals. The controversy constituted for labour-exporting countries a double edged sword. On the one hand, export of labour suited countries with high un- or underemployment whose remittances served as a source of foreign currency. On the other, it put the spotlight not only on sub-standard conditions in Qatar but also in the labour-exporting countries.
Writing in The Guardian, economist Jayati Ghosh noted that it was a news agency using India’s Right to Information Act rather than the government that took up the deaths of Indian workers in Qatar. “This apparent apathy and even nonchalance fits in only too well with the overall approach of the Indian elite towards the mass of its workers, migrant or otherwise. The Indian growth story has been marked by very little employment generation. Despite nearly three decades of rapid growth, net formal employment (jobs that provide any sort of worker protection and are subject to labour laws) has not increased at all… When the sheer pace of construction combines with a desperation on the part of workers willing to make huge sacrifices to improve the living conditions of their families, the result is a massive potential for exploitation,” Ghosh said.
Similarly, Nepal’s Kathmandu Post argued in an editorial written by prominent journalist Kanak Mani Dixit that the country’s government and civic society allowed abuse of Nepalese workers to occur. “The job migrants of Nepal are entrapped not only by the sponsor-manpower nexus but by a neglectful Kathmandu civil society and a government that has floundered all these years when it comes to foreign affairs and the protection of overseas citizens. The Kathmandu discourse on migrant labour is marked by a sense of fatalism—the diffidence explained perhaps by a fear of shaking the honey pot. The Gulf migrants are perceived as the luckier ones, given that the poorest of all cross the open border into the employment sump that is India,” the newspaper said.
Ironically, the Qatar Foundation’s push to overhaul the recruitment of foreign workers could emerge as the driver of a change in attitude in labour-exporting countries like Nepal. The pressure might force those countries to look at reforms at home and push them to ensure improved governance and adhesion to international labour standards in Qatar and other labour-importing nations. “It is a delicate task that requires research, diplomatic skill and committed activism—so that the fundamental rights of the workers are protected without exposing Nepali workers to formal or informal bans (as happened with Filipina workers, when Manila sought to raise their base income).. As a major labour exporter, Nepal must come out of the fog and get involved in the accelerating discourse. Priority in foreign affairs must be given to the relationships with the labour-receiving countries, especially those of the Gulf and Malaysia. We must rise from the wreckage of foreign affairs, including the appointment of incapable political-appointee ambassadors, which has directly hurt the prospects of citizens working overseas,” the Kathmandu Post said.
Labour reform poses a far more existential challenge to Qatar given its demographic deficit than it does in labour-exporting countries. The World Cup offers however Qatar its best chance to tackle a fundamental problem in a controlled and gradual fashion that at some point could threaten the nature of the Gulf state’s society and state. Qataris recognize the threat but like other Gulf states have no solution that would address their concerns of maintaining control of their culture, society and state while granting a majority of the population rights. Fear of loss of control and erosion of national identity serves as an impediment rather than an incentive to tackle the issue head on.
The controversy over labour conditions in Qatar has nonetheless left the Gulf state no choice but to start addressing the issue. That may not produce definitive solutions but opens the door to improvement of the material conditions of foreign workers as well as to a politically and socially sensitive but inevitable debate about the nation’s future. In standing up for the rights of their nationals, governments of labour-exporting states would not only be living up to obligations they accepted when they assumed power but unwittingly would be contributing to a long overdue process of change in Qatar and the Gulf that is likely to be painful and politically charged and will need to be sensitively managed.
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