Crunch time for Qatar on migrant workers

By James Lynch, Amnesty International’s researcher on migrants’ rights in the Gulf

Late last year, when I met a group of men employed by Lee Trading and Contracting, their situation had all the hallmarks of a crisis. Unpaid for months and abandoned by their employer, they were struggling to buy food and unable to send money back home. The fact that they had been working on one of Qatar’s most prestigious towers, home to its main football bodies, added to the sense of injustice.

This should have been a simple case for the authorities to resolve. To my knowledge, no one involved in the case has denied that these men are owed months of unpaid salaries. And yet nine months later, cases languish in the courts and wages remain unpaid. Many of the men have returned home after giving up hope. Between the government, the courts and the companies involved, it appears the people who needed protection have largely been left to fend for themselves.

Migrant workers face dire conditions in Qatar. © EPA
Migrant workers face dire conditions in Qatar. © EPA

There will be immense frustration at these latest reports among those in Qatar, both Qatari and foreign nationals, who are trying to stop labour abuses. They are motivated by anger at the exploitation, waking up before dawn to launch surprise worker welfare checks on construction firms and working to build a business culture that respects rights.

They say they see signs of progress, including increased scope for public debate about workers’ rights, evidenced by the recent publication of a strongly worded report on the subject by the Qatar Foundation, one of the state’s most high-profile institutions, chaired by the mother of the emir. But these positive efforts are often overshadowed by grim accounts of those let down by the system because it seems some in the government haven’t grasped the scale and urgency of the challenge. That’s surprising, given the firestorm of the past year that has seen labour rights in Qatar discussed in the European parliament and at Fifa executive committee meetings, questions asked of the British prime minister and the US state department’s decision to downgrade Qatar’s rating in its 2014 Trafficking in Persons report.

The labour ministry has made a raft of announcements in recent weeks, including increased and tougher labour inspection, stricter accommodation standards and wage protection measures, and proposals to marginally adjust the restrictive sponsorship system. But while there are some positive signs among this, much of it is just updates on the bureaucratic process; most of these laws have not come into force, let alone taken effect on the ground.

We are still waiting for the concrete steps that would begin to build confidence that there is a commitment to address the biggest issues: unambiguously and immediately abolishing the exit permit that prevents migrant workers from leaving the country without their employers’ permission; launching an independent investigation into the causes of workers’ deaths and developing plans to address these; dropping fees for workers to raise court cases against employers; prosecuting and publishing names of exploitative recruiters and employers; and granting domestic workers the legal protection of labour rights afforded to other workers. We also need to see a clear and ambitious timetable for full reform of the sponsorship system and how Qatar plans to provide migrant workers with their right to freedom of association.

These steps could start to win the country credit internationally and would largely be in line with what the state’s own review, produced by the law firm DLA Piper, has recommended. But the government seems unwilling or unable to stand up to influential parts of Qatar’s business community, who believe their interests lie in maintaining control of a cheap workforce and who have vigorously led opposition to full cancellation of the exit permit and substantive reform of the sponsorship system.

With controversy swirling around the country’s hosting of the World Cup, focused primarily on corruption allegations, the pressure has never been greater for the government and organisers to demonstrate to the world that Qatar 2022 can be a force for good. If they plan to answer their critics by doing the right thing on migrant labour, now is the moment.

Note: This piece originally appeared in the Guardian on 28 July 2014. 

Read more:
Qatar: New standards for migrant workers just a starting point (News story, 11 February 2014)Qatar: Unpaid migrant construction workers left to go hungry (News story, 18 December 2013)
The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup (Report, 17 November 2013)
Exploited and struggling to survive in Qatar (Feature, 17 November 2013)