No rights despite reforms: on Qatar's labour laws

Labour law reforms being celebrated in Qatar fall short of upholding the basic rights of migrant workers

Updated - March 23, 2021 12:30 am IST

Published - March 23, 2021 12:15 am IST

This file photo taken on May 4, 2015 shows foreign laborers working on the construction site of the al-Wakrah football stadium, one of the Qatar's 2022 World Cup stadiums, walking back to their accomodation at the Ezdan 40 compound after finishing work in Doha's Al-Wakrah southern suburbs.

This file photo taken on May 4, 2015 shows foreign laborers working on the construction site of the al-Wakrah football stadium, one of the Qatar's 2022 World Cup stadiums, walking back to their accomodation at the Ezdan 40 compound after finishing work in Doha's Al-Wakrah southern suburbs.

Not one of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states can cater to their labour market needs domestically. Their dependence on migration is only set to increase with fertility rates falling. Despite there being unemployment, the citizens of these countries are unlikely to step in and do the supposedly low-skilled, and definitely low-paid, jobs of the millions of migrants who work there.

The reality in Qatar

Qatar, the richest of the six countries in terms of per capita GDP, is the most dependent on migrant labour. Nationals count for less than 15% of the 2.6 million population and about 7% of the labour market. About 60% of the population lives in labour camps. The Qatarisation (nationalising the workforce) plan only affects the most well-paid jobs in the private and public sector. But there is enough to go around even after targets are met for the ‘expat’, usually well-heeled citizens of the global North.

This reality must be the basis of any analysis of the human rights of migrant workers in the country and the slew of reforms that Qatar has been boasting about. The main reason for the growing demand to boycott Qatar as the host of the FIFA World Cup for 2022 is that the country treats its migrant workers poorly, resulting in destitution and unexplained deaths. But while the muck has been stirred up in light of this event, there is no meaningful effort to actually clean it up.

The problem is viewed as one of inadequate legal protection, and the solution is framed as reforming or abolishing the Kafala (sponsorship) system , without acknowledging the many facets of various laws and practices that are the foundation of this system. The failure to understand this complexity has allowed Qatar to get away with the bare minimum in terms of dialogue and reform: it has engaged with the International Labour Organization (ILO) by entering into a technical co-operation without really ratifying key labour treaties; allowed access to international NGOs and trade unions (which its neighbours won’t do) without allowing civil society activism and unionisation domestically (which Bahrain and Kuwait do); and donated to the World Health Organization and other United Nations mechanisms while keeping the majority of its residents in poverty.

The global scrutiny and demand for accountability does affect the emirate’s reputation, but not enough to lose its rich and influential friends. We are seeing an increasing presence of UN agencies, the most prominent of which are the ILO, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Development Programme, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Qatar remains one of the few places where there is an opportunity for profitable economic participation for the big businesses headquartered in the North, and that can’t be jeopardised. So, that leaves us with Asian and African countries (a steady source of cheap labour), which are facing climate change, loss of livelihoods, and increasing unemployment. Understandably, they won’t stand up to countries from where much-needed remittances flow. These are some of the reasons why a low minimum wage and allowing workers to exit the country or change jobs without the sponsor’s permission are celebrated.

Maintaining the status quo

But will Qatar’s response to these aspects in the shape of reforms remove exploitation of workers? The short answer is ‘no.’ Across the GCC, migrant labour is increasingly referred to as ‘temporary’ or ‘guest’. While this may have made some sense a few decades ago, when Qatar and its neighbours were hosting 2,00,000-3,00,000 workers to meet their labour needs, it is unjustifiable when dependency on migrants is inarguably permanent, so much so that the entire economy will collapse without access to cheap labour.

In order to maintain the status quo, all the other complexities of the ‘Kafala’ have been ignored in the reforms. There is no attempt to curb the unchecked powers of the kafeel , who can have the workers they sponsor arrested, detained and deported without due process. Charges of absconding are used to keep workers in abusive employment or risk being criminalised as irregular. There are no mechanisms to address rampant wage theft, despite the electronic payment systems. Migrant domestic workers, mainly women, are excluded from the labour law. They are trapped within households at the mercy of the employer and do not enjoy the most basic freedoms, including off days, mobility and access to modes of communication.

From domestic and care work, construction and hospitality, to nursing and maintenance, even if a quarter of the employed stop work for a week, Qatar will come to a standstill. It is this fear that drives the GCC countries to exercise control over the most essential of their labour. So, celebrating reforms is questionable. What Qatar is doing is making exploitative laws that enable forced labour more palatable.

Vani Saraswathi is the Editor-at-Large and Director of Projects of Migrant-Rights.org

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