Trade unions test Qatari sincerity with demands for labour reform

By James M. Dorsey

International trade unions have stepped up pressure on Qatar with a series of demands, a majority of which the Gulf state could implement without having to reform its autocracy or threaten the privileged position of its citizenry who account for a mere 12 percent of the population and fear that change could cost them control of their culture and society.

The demands in a report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) that also include calls for changes that would challenge autocratic rule, come at a time that world soccer body FIFA could become obliged to more forcefully pressure Qatar to move beyond baby steps it has already taken towards speedy implementation of far-reaching reform of its kafala or sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.

Many of the ITUC demands are likely to be on FIFA’s list if it implements recommendations to incorporate UN human rights guidelines in all its procedures, processes and decision-making. FIFA has requested a Harvard University professor to present it by March with a report on how to adopt the guidelines.

The ITUC report and FIFA’s potentially greater role come as pressure on Qatar is mounting with legal investigations into the integrity of its successful 2022 World Cup bid. A Swiss judicial investigation focusses exclusively on the Qatari bid as well as Russia’s winning of the hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup, while US attorney general Loretta Lynch recently expressed hope that Qatar would cooperate with a Department of Justice investigation into FIFA that has already led to the indictment of some 40 officials and entities.

Hassan al-Thawadi, the secretary general of Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, said Qatar has yet to be contacted by Swiss or US authorities.

Theo Zwanziger, the former FIFA executive committee member who was in charge until last May for monitoring Qatari progress towards labour reform, has meanwhile lost confidence in the Gulf state’s sincerity.

Mr. Zwanziger, who has been sued by Qatar for libel after he described the Gulf state as a “cancerous growth on world football,” said Qatari labour reforms were “a sham.” He called for depriving Qatar of its World Cup hosting rights and a fan boycott in protest against the Gulf state’s violations of human rights.

In its report, the ITUC demanded Qatar begin reform of kafala by eliminating exit visas and giving workers the right to change jobs, authorize contracts between employers or reputable recruitment companies and employees, and introduce a national minimum wage, a company grievance procedure and an independent labour court.

Implementation of these demands would not challenge the fundament’s of Qatar’s family rule political structure compared to other ITUC demands such as the trade unions’ insistence on worker representation through elected representatives and the right to collective bargaining. The ITUC, however, stopped short in its report of demanding abolition of kafala or the formation of independent trade unions.

Qatar by moving on ITUC’s non-political demands, most of which could be implemented quickly, would significantly counter mounting pressure and perceptions that it is not serious about making good on pledges for reform. Qatari moves so far fall far short of the Gulf state’s initial promises.

Significant segments of Qatari society oppose labour reform out of fear that it would open a Pandora’s Box to demands for more political and cultural rights by the Gulf state’s majority non-Qatari population.

Fears in the business community that abolishment of the exit visa would potentially enable expatriates who manage Qatari businesses to abscond with company funds could easily be assuaged with the introduction of a government guarantee modelled on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in the United States that guarantees deposits in US banks. Despite the drop in global commodity prices and a projected budget deficit of $12.77 billion in 2016, Qatar would be capable of absorbing the cost of a minimum wage.

The ITUC report put foreign companies involved in the construction in Qatari projects, including ones related to the World Cup, on the spot by accusing them of exploiting underpaid workers that they in the trade unions’ words use as "modern-day slaves.” The report asserted that workers building the Khalifa International Stadium were earning $1.50 an hour.

The report estimated that “$15 billion profit will be made by companies working in Qatar on infrastructure… Every CEO operating in Qatar is aware that their profits are driven by appallingly low wage levels -- wages that are often based on a system of racial discrimination -- and that these profits risk safety, resulting in indefensible workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths," the report quoted ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow as saying.

Speedy and serious moves towards labour reform would not only strengthen Qatar’s hand in fending off ITUC’s more political demands but also hand it a needed public diplomacy success at a time that the Gulf state has on balance taken a public relations beating.

News about the World Cup has been dominated by questions about the integrity of the Qatari bid and criticism of the Gulf state’s labour regime. Add to that reporting on the recent blocking of an article critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record on the main websites of the state-owned Al Jazeera television network in a bid not to offend Qatar’s big brother.

Further contributing to Qatar’s woes, is a report by a senior professor from Northwestern University, which prides itself on its journalism program, that concluded that lack of academic freedom deprived the university of any justification to maintain its campus in the Gulf state.

“Should we pull out? Yes, if we can’t be assured that students and faculty can investigate and report what they want without fear of arrest or expulsion. The education of Qatar women — the daughters of millionaires — and other Middle Eastern elites (worthwhile as it may be), is not an essential mission of Northwestern University,” said art historian Stephen F. Eisenman.

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, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.


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