By James M. Dorsey
Qatar in a bid to counter mounting criticism of workers’ conditions in the Gulf state and a threatened global campaign by international trade unions calling for a boycott of the 2022 World Cup trumpeted this week the announcement of the opening of a chapter of Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).
The UK-based charity, which works with employers and practitioners to improve standards of work-related health and safety, said it had developed a five-year plan to improve “road traffic, fire and construction safety” in Qatar.
Olumide Adeolu, head of the newly established IOSH Qatar branch, told the Gulf Times that he aimed to raise standards of occupational safety and health in line with Qatar’s plan to develop a legal framework to ensure a safe workplace.
“Our duty is to ensure that workers are adequately protected from accidents at their workplace and also to provide support to safety practitioners, who are charged with the responsibility of ensuring a safe workplace,” Mr. Adelou was quoted as saying.
“We will also look to contribute to a safe and healthy 2022 World Cup in Qatar, by offering guidance on construction safety and sports events planning,” added IOSH president Subash Ludhra.
The opening of the IOSH chapter comes days after the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Building and Woodworkers' International (BWI), which claim to represent 175 million workers in 153 countries, complained to the International Labour Organization (ILO) that Qatar was refusing to allow migrant workers to freely unionize in violation of international standards.
The unions asserted that poor working conditions and the inability of migrant workers, who constitute a majority of Qatar’s population, to stand up for their rights was responsible for the Gulf state’s high rate of workplace deaths. Noting that Qatar refuses to release statistics of workplace deaths, the unions asserted that an average 200 Nepalese workers die every year in the Gulf state as a result of work-related incidents.
Qatar is expected to import up to 1 million migrant workers to work on infrastructure projects linked to the hosting of the World Cup. The Qatar 2022 World Cup organizing committee has said that it will ensure contractors adhere to international labor laws.
The opening of the IOSH chapter is likely to fall short of the demands of the unions who last week launched a campaign entitled ‘Qatar: Do the Right Thing’ to pressure the Gulf state. The unions called on their members not to “let your World Cup team play in a shamed stadium. Help us fill the stadium now, and send a message to Qatar that there will be no World Cup in 2022 without workers' rights.”
The ITUC asserts that “1.2 million workers in Qatar are prohibited from joining a trade union, in violation of international rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining….We want people to know about the problems facing workers in Qatar, where more people will die building the World Cup infrastructure than will play in the World Cup…Local laws in Qatar stop migrant workers from forming a trade union, collectively bargaining for better wages, and healthy and safe work.”
In a statement last week, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said that "an event like the World Cup should be an opportunity for a wealthy nation like Qatar to modernize its social framework - and we will be putting all pressure we can to ensure that workers' rights are improved as a result of the event."
Qatar has repeatedly denied that it exploits foreign labour. “The Ministry has received no complaint of forced labour and it is inconceivable that such a thing exists in Qatar as the worker may break his contract and return to his country whenever he wishes and the employer cannot force him to remain in the country against his will," the ministry said in a letter in June to Human Rights Watch in response to a damning report by the group.
Nonetheless, Qatar has rejected ITUC demands that workers be allowed to organize and move freely and abolish its sponsorship system. Instead, the Gulf state has said it would establish government-controlled workers’ councils and replace sponsorship with a system of contracts between employers and employees that does not give workers full freedom to seek alternative employment.
The trade union demands go to the heart of the largest threat to several of the wealthy Gulf states: the demographic time bomb. Qataris like Bahrainis, Kuwaitis and Emiratis constitute a minority of their country’s population and fear that any concessions that would give expatriates and migrant workers a stake in society could jeopardize their national identity, privileges and culture.
In responding to the trade unions, the Qatari government is walking a fine line between projecting the Gulf state as a cutting edge 21st century nation and local concerns that the country’s Islamic norms could be jeopardized by complying with what are perceived to be Western standards.
Fear of social change in the world’s only country alongside Saudi Arabia that adheres to the puritan interpretation of Islam of the 18th century warrior priest Mohammed Abdul Wahhab albeit in a less strict application has already prompted protests by conservative elements.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.