You have reached the main content

DLA Piper's Qatar report: little new, but calls to end kafala and investigate cardiac deaths

On May 25, 2014

Law firm DLA Piper has called to an end to Qatar's kafala system in a long-awaited report on the living and working conditions of migrant workers in the Gulf state.

The report, which was commissioned by the Qatari government following The Guardian's investigation on abuses of migrant workers building the World Cup 2022 infrastructure  is now available publicly, and can be downloaded from the website of Engineers Against Poverty.

There is little in the report that is new;  the document closely references recent publications by Amnesty International  (2014) and Human Rights Watch (2012) and does not add substantially to either.

The main recommendation is that Qatar abolishes the kafala system, which ties a migrant worker's right to remain in the country to the permission of a kafeel, or sponsor. In particular, the report calls for reform of the exit visa system, and a comprehensive review of whether it is necessary for migrant workers to have the permission of their sponsor to leave the country.

The report also recommends harsher penalties for employers who withhold passports from their employees.

One area of focus that is new, however, is the report's recommendation that Qatar carry out a comprehensive review into the high levels of reported cardiac deaths and unexplained 'sudden deaths' among migrant construction workers 'in view of the high levels of speculation around the subject'.

There have been numerous media reports on the subject of heart attacks and sudden deaths, particularly among Nepali migrants to Qatar, including this recent piece by The Guardian's Pete Pattisson, and this  report on the phenomenon by Nepali journalist Deepak Adhikari. Both suggest that unbearably high temperatures and hard physical labour combined with the psychological stress of spending extended periods away from home is responsible for the frequency of heart attacks.

Local media responses to the report have been mixed: Doha news says that the report is 'not groundbreaking', and says that since the report is commissioned by the government, it is unclear what kind of an impact it will have on reform. Vani Saraswathi of online news portal Justhere argues that the report treats migration to Qatar as a purely temporary phenomenon  when in the country is heavily dependent on foreign labour and will be for the longterm. She also calls attention to the 'worrying' lack of timelines.

The report is specifically concerned with construction workers, and does not deal with the 130,000 foreign nationals that are involved in domestic service, of which 84,000 are women (Amnesty)

Qatar currently has the highest percentage of migrant workers in the world - 1.39m, or 85% of the total population, according to the UN Special Rapporteur's Report on the Human Rights of Migrants.