Qatar finally joins two key human rights treaties – but what does it really mean for migrant workers?

Qatar recently announced that it was taking a historic step and finally joining the vast majority of countries around the world, as well as Gulf neighbours Kuwait and Bahrain, in ratifying two key treaties that underpin much of today’s international human rights law.

By ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Qatar is now legally obliged to respect, protect and fulfil the range of rights guaranteed by both treaties for everybody within its territory, without discrimination – which includes the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers currently building its World Cup infrastructure, or employed as domestic workers.

This positive step comes in part because of concerted efforts to improve the country’s human rights reputation ahead of hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022, and also in the midst of an ongoing political crisis between Qatar and its neighbours.

But, beyond the headlines, what will this mean for the country in general, and for its migrant workers in particular?

After the good news, the bad. When ratifying the treaties, Qatar entered a number of damaging ‘reservations’ that limited the scope of its commitments. Qatar refused to fully recognise equal rights for women – for example, in matters of personal laws – and also stated that they will interpret the term ‘punishment’ in line with the Islamic Sharia. This means that women will still not have equal rights to inheritance, and that there will be no removal of the death penalty or corporal punishment which is currently applicable in crimes including murder, banditry and adultery.

For migrant workers, who continue to face severe exploitation amidst the country’s pre-World Cup construction boom, there are further disappointments. In a move that conflicts with Qatar’s claims to want to put an end to labour exploitation – as well as with the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) key principles on workers’ rights – the government has also reiterated that only Qatari nationals are allowed to form associations and trade unions, thereby preventing migrant workers from acting and bargaining collectively to improve their dire working conditions. 

But what about the remaining human rights obligations Qatar has joined up to – could they make any difference to migrant workers? The answer is potentially quite a lot, but only if they are implemented in full.

This would mean going much further than anything Qatar has done to date, and ultimately requires fundamental reform of the country’s notorious ‘kafala’ sponsorship system, which continues to permit serious and widespread exploitation, and a much more proactive enforcement of its Labour Law.

For example, the ICESCR says that everyone has a right to just and safe working conditions, fair wages, paid holidays and reasonable limitation of working hours – far removed from today’s reality. If Qatar were to both respect and ensure protection of these obligations for all of its population, including the migrant workforce, workers would no longer be subjected to conditions that the ILO Committee of Experts has described as amounting to forced labour.

The ICESCR also makes clear that everyone has the right to freely choose or accept his or her work. If this right was to be respected by all employers in Qatar, it would mean that workers would finally be allowed to change jobs without the permission of those employers, and would no longer be at risk of detention for “absconding” if they attempt to leave exploitative situations.

Similarly, if Qatar was to respect the right of freedom of movement outlined in the ICCPR – including that all individuals to be free to leave any country, including his own – employers would no longer be able to prevent a worker from leaving Qatar to return home, as they can today.

Qatar is expected to make a number of key announcements on labour reforms this year. Over the coming months, we will know whether or not Qatar takes its international obligations seriously, and whether or not hundreds of thousands of migrant workers will have their rights recognised and respected.

If Qatar does change its kafala system to allow workers to freely leave the country and change jobs, to join trade unions, receive fair pay and be protected from labour abuse and exploitation, then signing these treaties will have been a key moment in history.

If it does not, then it will be yet another missed opportunity – like many others we have seen since Qatar secured the World Cup in 2010 – and a violation of the international treaties the country has just signed.