Qatar at a crossroads: Reform labour laws or risk revived calls for relocating the World Cup
By James M. Dorsey
Qatar, caught in a Catch-22 between a requirement to quickly reform its labour system in a bid to convince human rights and trade union activists that it is serious and the need domestically to proceed slowly, risks losing goodwill it has built in recent years that could further fuel demands to deprive the Gulf state of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights.
A just published Amnesty International report entitled ‘No Extra Time: How Qatar Is Still Failing on Workers’ Rights Ahead of the World Cup’ signals that activists’ patience with Qatar’s failure to act on promises to reform the living and working conditions of foreign workers, who constitute a majority of the Gulf states’ population, is running out.
Qatar’s engagement with activists in the last three years in for the Gulf unprecedented ways and the adoption of significantly improved living and working standards for foreign labour by two major Qatari institutions, the Qatar Foundation and the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, suggested that the Gulf state was serious about reform.
The standards adopted by the foundation and the committee are however mandatory only for companies contracting with the two institutions. Qatar could have significantly boosted confidence in its sincerity by enshrining those standards in national law.
Recent remarks to Qatari media made by Labour and Social Affairs Minister Abdullah Saleh Mubarak Al Khulaifi suggested that only some of those standards such as an obligation of employers to pay employees through bank transfers to ensure that they are paid on time would be included in a new labour law expected to be adopted before the end of the year.
It wasn’t clear from Mr. Al Khulaifi’s remarks whether the new law would incorporate promised modifications of Qatar’s kafala or sponsorship system that put workers at the mercy of their employers. The changes would fall far short of demands by human rights groups and trade unions to abolish the system but would constitute an improvement.
Qatar has suggested that it would limit sponsorship for a period of up to five years rather than the current indefinite period and replace the exit visa system with a new system that would give employers 72 hours to appeal against an employee’s intention to leave the country.
Qatar, in response to a stream of reports of work-related injuries and deaths as well as workers being caught in Catch-22s without papers and insurance as a result of the sponsorship system, has said that it has increased by 25 per cent the number of its labour inspectors, shut down more than 30 sub-standard worksites and increased mandatory living space for workers by 50 per cent. While the measures constitute progress, they fall short of full implementation of promises made and fail to inspire confidence that Qatar has put the mechanisms in place to efficiently supervise adherence to rules and regulations.
In an interview with Associated Press Qatari Sports Minister Salah bin Ghanem bin Nasser al-Ali insisted that the labour issue was “a human question.” Qataris are not “vicious people who are like vampires. … We have emotions, we feel bad,” Mr. Al-Ali said. Earlier Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said he was personally hurt by the workers’ plight.
While that is no doubt true, Sheikh Tamim also has to reckon with widespread opposition to radical changes or abolition of the kafala system among Qataris who worry that they could lose control of their state and society and see their culture diluted if foreigners were to gain rights. Qataris constitute a mere 12 per cent of the Gulf state’s population. Many realize that their demography is unsustainable, but cling to the status quo in the absence of a solution that would address their existential fears.
Sheikh Tamim’s adoption of more gradual reform of Qatar’s labour system to take those existential fears into account risks however losing the benefit of the doubt human rights groups were willing to grant Qatar. With the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) more hard line in its approach, Qatar’s failure to convince activists of its sincerity could result in a renewed push to deprive the Gulf state of its World Cup hosting tights on grounds of violations of human and labour rights.
A renewed campaign would come at a time that international sports associations are starting to make adherence to human, labour and gender rights a pre-condition for the awarding of hosting rights. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has begun writing those rights into host city contracts. The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) warned Iran this week that it would be stripped of its right to host the 2015 Under-19 men’s championship if it did not lift its ban on women attending matches in stadia. Members of the executive committee of world soccer body FIFA have acknowledged that human rights would have to figure in the future awarding of the World Cup.
In its report, Amnesty noted that Qatar had in May made a series of promises of reform in response to criticism by human rights activists that was echoed in a report by law firm DLA Piper commissioned by Qatar. Those promises included beyond changes in the kafala and exit visa system also the abolition of a rule that bars workers from returning to Qatar for two years after they have ended a contract. “Even these limited proposed reforms remain unfulfilled,” Amnesty said, noting that measures to improve the health and safety of construction workers had been “inadequate.”
Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Amnesty’s head of refugee and migrant rights, warned in a statement that “time is running out fast. It has been four years since Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup, putting itself in the global spotlight, so far its response to migrant labour abuses has not been much more than promises of action and draft laws… The government of Qatar still appears to be dragging its feet over some of the most fundamental changes needed such as abolishing the exit permit and overhauling its abusive sponsorship system... Urgent action is needed to ensure we do not end up with a World Cup tournament that is built on forced labour and exploitation,” Mr. Elsayed-Ali said.
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.