By James M. Dorsey
Trade unions have stepped up pressure on Qatar to comply with international labor standards in advance of an expected influx of foreign labor to work on World Cup 2022-related construction projects by charging the Gulf state of employing forced labor in a complaint to the International Labor Organization.
The complaint alongside an earlier representation to the ILO about Qatar’s rejection of workers’ collective bargaining rights and the freedom to establish independent unions comes as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) with 175 million members in 153 countries is gearing up to test a Qatari promise to allow workers to freely organize themselves. Qatar is expected to import up to one million foreign workers to construct infrastructure for the World Cup.
As a result, labor amid widespread concerns about issues such as consumption of alcohol, gay rights and extreme summer temperatures in Qatar, is emerging as the issue that could leverage Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup to effect social change not only in Qatar but also in other Gulf states. The push for labor rights comes at a time that Qatar and other Gulf states are rallying the wagons against the threat posed by the Middle East and North Africa’s popular clamor for more transparent and accountable rule and greater freedom.
Foreign labor employed under a restrictive sponsorship system that restricts workers’ ability to change jobs or travel freely in Qatar as well as in countries like Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates where foreigners constitute the majority of the population has long been criticized by unions and human rights group. Qataris number only 300,000 in the Gulf state’s total population of 1.2 million.
An ITUC threat to call on its members to boycott the World Cup, the world’s largest sporting event, has however, for the first time given critics a stick to wield.
Qatar has so far failed to assuage the unions with efforts to improve the material conditions of workers by enforcing safety, security and health standards; obliging companies to prove on-time payment to workers by monthly submitting their payrolls to the Labor Ministry, reducing the maximum number of workers to a room by half from eight to four and planning the construction of a city for foreign workers with amenities such as shopping malls and cinemas.
Union officials insist that improvement of material conditions should flow from collective bargaining by independent unions established by workers themselves. Qatar Labor Minister Sultan bin Hassan advised ITUC chairwoman Sharan Burrow in November that his government would not penalize workers who formed their own unions. The statement appeared to be a significant advance from Qatar’s earlier attempt to placate the ITUC with a pledge to establish a government-controlled union.
The ITUC and the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) have vowed to put Mr. Bin Hassan’s pledge to the test this year. The two organizations are finalizing arrangements for the establishment of an international union presence in Qatar that would work with foreign workers willing to take the risk of establishing their own union. Ms. Burrow is scheduled to visit Qatar again in March for discussions with the labor minister.
The ITUC’s complaint to the ILO involving the cases of seven workers constitutes the first time that legal proceedings have been initiated in which the sponsorship system in Qatar has been defined as forced labor.
One of those cases is believed to be that of Benjamin Cruz, a rare instance of a worker willing to speak out who in the below video published on the website of Equal Times, the ITUC media site, describes the unilateral reduction of his salary.
In a statement, Ms. Burrow said the Qatari sponsorship system allows the exaction of forced labor by making it difficult for a migrant worker to leave an abusive employer or travel overseas without permission.
“Under Qatari law, employers have near total control over workers. They alone choose if a worker can change jobs, leave the country or stay in Qatar. 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,” Ms. Burrow said.
The ITUC said that the Qatari labor ministry received an 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 workers suffer exploitation for fear of retaliation. The Government must put their 150 labor inspectors to work and make the complaints process accessible to the majority of workers, many of whom don’t speak English or Arabic,” the ITUC quoted BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson as saying..
The ITUC’s ILO complaint includes allegations of false promises to workers on the nature and type of work by recruiters and sponsors; employers’ failure to meet their wage payment and working condition obligations; contract violations; worker debt as the result of high fees imposed by recruiters and moneylenders; the withholding of workers’ passports; and the housing of workers in squalid, overcrowded labor camps
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog