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Empty promises? Qatar’s commitment to migrant workers’ rights

November 8, 2017

Delayed and non-payment of wages, excessive working hours, and forced labour are among the many issues faced by migrants working on FIFA’s 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Late last month, the Qatari government committed to ‘align its laws and practices with international labour standards’ ahead of today’s ILO Governing Body session that will discuss the country’s limited enforcement of the forced labour and labour inspection conventions, which it has ratified.

Through this commitment, the Qatari government agreed to establish a three-year programme of technical cooperation with international government bodies, trade unions and civil society. This programme will address passport confiscations, introduce minimum wage to all workers, and abolish Qatar’s sponsorship system – kafala – that impacts the country’s 1.6 million migrant worker population.

However, this is not the first time Qatar has committed to scrap the kafala system. Last December, the government pledged to substitute this system – which requires migrant workers to have a sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and right to work in the country – with a contract-based law system. Yet, little has changed, as migrant workers are still unable to change employers or leave the country without their sponsor’s approval.

FLEX research has shown that tied visas increase migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation, as they fear losing their jobs and right to work if they come forward about abuses. Earlier this year in Qatar, a Nepalese construction worker was fired after speaking to a UN delegation about unpaid wages and employers withholding his passport. He was then jailed for two weeks as a consequence of having lost his sponsorship. This is one among many examples of how sponsorship systems place all the power in the hands of employers, and can end up criminalising victims of exploitation. Abolishing the kafala system becomes meaningless if workers are still not allowed to change jobs and continue having their freedom of movement restricted.

Qatar’s new commitments will only reduce workers’ vulnerability to exploitation if they are accompanied by clear and accessible enforcement mechanisms. With a little under 300 labour inspectors, the country is unable to carry out adequate labour inspections, which are essential to identify and prevent labour abuses, as demonstrated by FLEX.

As such, the government must invest more resources in monitoring working conditions of migrant workers, and ensure that inspectors and interpreters understand cultural, gendered and structural issues that affect workers facing exploitation. The government must also address obstacles that prevent migrant workers from accessing justice, including access to information in their native language and understanding how to register complaints without fear of reprisal.

During the last months, Qatar has shown a greater willingness to address migrant workers’ rights through the adoption of the ‘Domestic Workers’ Law’ and through this technical cooperation programme. These commitments must be followed by the establishment of clear laws that are supported by effective enforcement mechanisms that place migrant workers’ rights at the centre. Unless the Qatari government ensures compliance with new regulations and enables workers to access their rights without fear of reprisal, it will once again fail to protect migrant workers from labour exploitation.