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'Gulf Arabs value profit over people': Migrant worker abuse discussed at Doha Debates

On December 12, 2008

Abuses of migrant labourers and domestic staff were discussed openly at the last round of the Doha Debates on November 17th, where the audience voted 75% in favour of a motion that ‘Gulf Arabs value profit over people’. Ex-BBC correspondent and former Hard Talk host Tim Sebastian chaired a frank and heated discussion on policies in the Gulf States which favour profit over human rights as part of a series of debates backed by the Qatar Foundation.

Dr Mansoor Al-Jamri, Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Bahrain’s Alwasat newspaper criticized the governments of Gulf States for exploitation of mainly South Asian construction workers who are forced to live in ‘conditions that cats and dogs would not accept’. Al-Jamri and warned that if labourers continue to be treated like ‘third class citizens’ then international bodies may be forced to intervene in the affairs of the Gulf States.

Sheikh Mohamed Ahmed Jassim Althani, former Qatari Minister for Economy and Commerce, speaking against the debate, said that workers also get abused at home, and that Gulf States should be praised for their ambitious and comprehensive social service and education systems.

“But remember they also get abused at home. I do not defend these employers, but the state is taking all kinds of measures to enforce the regulations.”

The motion received an impassioned response from audience members, such as one young Egyptian man who had visited labour camps, argued that migrant workers were forced to live in conditions even worse than those seen in some Palestinian refugee camps.

The debate was picked up and commented on by several regional publications, including Qatari Daily Gulf Times, which ran an editorial on migrant labour in its 30th anniversary edition ('Labour Law Violators Need to be Pursued'):

At a time when Gulf Times is taking a trip down memory lane it is worth delving farther into history to the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 19th century for another sense of perspective. In 1833 and 1844 the first laws prohibiting children younger than nine from working were passed but it was not until well into the 20th century that no-nonsense enforcement eradicated the problem.
So as we continue to wait for changes to the sponsorship law in Qatar employers who violate the existing labour legislation need to be pursued through the courts more rigorously and punished accordingly. After all, three quarters of the Doha Debates audience who believe Gulf Arabs value profit over people cannot be wrong, can they?