Qatar Can’t Have it Both Ways

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Thousands of workers are unlikely to die on World Cup sites but Qatar’s response to criticism is also misplaced.

Dec 31 2015

The International Trade Union Confederation’s latest report estimates that more than 7,000 migrant workers may die by the time the 2022 World Cup kicks off. Qatar’s reaction echoes its response to Amnesty International’s report earlier this month – defensive, deflective, and devoid of much substance.

While the report’s predictions are grounded in questionable logic, Qatar’s latest self-victimization is also miscalculated.  A close reading of Qatar’s statement unpacks the fallacies underlying its response.

Qatar:  Doha/Information Office/ 20 December 2015/

The International Trade Union Confederation's (ITUC) claim –  repeated in its most recent statement –  that "by the time the 2022 World Cup kicks off in seven years time, based on new data, more than 7,000 migrant workers could have died in Qatar" is groundless and represents a deliberate distortion of the facts. To date, after more than 14 million hours worked, there have been no fatalities on World Cup project sites – not one.

It also makes no sense to suggest that all deaths in a population of over a million workers are a result of workplace accidents or conditions, as ITUC appears to claim. To illustrate the point: if ITUC were to apply the same logic to an evaluation of worker fatalities in the run-up to the London Olympic Games, every death of a non-British worker between 2006 and 2012 would have been attributed to the London Olympics.

It’s true that no deaths have been recorded on World Cup sites. The claim that 1,200 migrant workers have died so far on World Cup sites and that 4,000 would die during its construction, received widespread attention earlier this year,  but also garnered criticism for its misleading calculations.   

Yet Qatar has little standing to complain about misrepresentative data when it fails to hold contractors accountable and make public this information. Qatar not only lacks transparency but has actively imposed obstacles to information-gathering by continuously subjecting media to monitoring and detention.

The ITUC now claims that “by analysing Qatar’s own statistics and health reports over the past three years, previous reports of 4,000 workers dying by 2022 are a woeful underestimate.

“The real fatality rate is over 1,000 per year, meaning that 7,000 workers will die by 2022. Qatar hospital emergency departments are receiving 2,800 patients per day – 20 per cent more from 2013 to 2014.”

The prediction that 7,000 migrant workers will die by 2022 are imaginative – however they are based on previous migrant worker deaths that speak to wider working conditions in Qatar; the analogy to London’s Olympics Games is shaky as the majority of Qatar’s lower-income migrant workers are indeed in the construction and service industry. To obtain a visa, prospective migrants must pass stringent medical tests to ensure they are fit for work. Thus, the sudden heart attacks and similar ailments that afflict many young migrants in Qatar are very likely related to workplace conditions – unlike the deaths of all non-British workers in the UK between 2006 and 2012.

Again, as the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MOSA)  does not release information about worker injuries and deaths on actual project sites, the ITUC’s offers the closest estimations possible with the little data available .

Qatar: Though ITUC's figures have been thoroughly and painstakingly refuted many times in the past, the trade union confederation, for reasons that are unclear, repeatedly offers them as established fact. There is absolutely no reason to believe that thousands of workers will die on World Cup sites, and repeating this falsehood, all evidence to the contrary, does not make it true.

Equally unclear is why ITUC fails to compare labour conditions in Qatar with conditions in other countries facing similar challenges. Qatar is certainly not the only nation experiencing rapid growth and development and offering employment to a large number of guest workers. The government of the State of Qatar fully intends to meet the highest standards with regard to labour conditions and would welcome comparative data on the progress that has been made.

Qatar should hold itself to international standards, not the standards of neighboring countries; not only has every other GCC country received similar criticism for poor labor standards and migrant rights violations, but some have actually made greater strides in reforming Kafala. Qatar is in the spotlight because it has accepted the responsibility - and the economic rewards and prestige – that comes with hosting the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar is not passively “experiencing rapid growth and development.” It is not “offering employment” as a gracious gesture. It requires a large labour force to realize the rapid development path it has elected for itself. The onus is on Qatar to fast-track its labor standards accordingly. It has had for years and within its reach, the advice and expertise of numerous rights groups and trade confederations to study and implement these reforms. 

Qatar: In the past five years, workers in Qatar have sent home between $10 billion and $14 billion dollars in remittances to their families each year. The overwhelming majority of these workers are fairly treated. But the government recognises that a small minority are not, which is why we are reforming our labour laws and practices, and making continuous improvements to both the living and working conditions of Qatar's guest workers.

Remittances are vital to sending countries’ economies as well as individuals’ economic mobility. Many migrant workers are eager for the chance to work abroad and improve the situation of their families. However, remittances are a two-way street and should be not leveraged to validate Qatar's poor migration policies.   The popular conviction that workers ‘chose to come here and should be satisfied with whatever conditions they encounter, and should be grateful they earn more money than is possible at home’, works to justify discriminatory legislation  and inhumane treatment.

The repeated reference to Qatar’s laborers as “guest” or “transient” workers works to circumvent international standards for migrant workers and wrongly endorses the notion that Qatar is providing opportunity, rather than amassing disproportionate benefit, from employing workers who are indispensable to realizing its 2030 National Vision.

Qatar cannot combat “exaggeration” with unsubstantiated claims that “the overwhelming majority of these workers are fairly treated.”  This assertion ignores the structural vulnerability created by the Kafala system and its encompassing legal environment,  as well as the extensive documentation of exploitation;  it reflects Qatar’s failure to acknowledge the real depth of its labor crisis, and its correspondingly shallow commitment to improving migrant worker rights.

Qatar: Significant reforms have been made and more are in the pipeline:

- The Wage Protection System to ensure workers are paid in full and on time is in place and is being enforced. All employees of private companies in Qatar must now receive their wages electronically via bank transfer within seven days.

- Qatar has introduced and enforced new laws that make it illegal for companies to withhold workers' passports; make it illegal to work during midday hours during the summer months; increase the minimum accommodation space per worker by 50 per cent; and improve health and safety requirements for all workers in Qatar.

Qatar’s latest reforms actually permit employers to hold passports with “permission.” Employees would have little real independence to protest, given that employers still hold far more power over workers.

The wage protection system has indeed been introduced, however not without significant hiccups that highlight Qatar’s implementation deficit.

As for enforcement, Qatar does not have enough labor inspectors to ensure that its minimum labor standards are met. It currently employs 300 inspectors for a population of roughly 1.6 million workers, and will not have 400 inspectors ready until the end of 2016.

Qatar: Qatar has also put in place stronger regulations to safeguard workers’ welfare, and has improved access to justice for those suffering unfair treatment; an electronic complaint system now operates in 10 different languages, including, English, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and Nepali.

- To address the issue of unfair recruitment practices in workers' countries of origin, Qatar has licensed over 200 recruitment agencies that are subject to regular monitoring and checks to ensure compliance with recruitment standards.

- To address the issue at its source, we continue to cooperate with origin country governments, and have so far signed 35 bilateral agreements and 5 Memoranda of Understanding with 40 countries of origin.

- The Government recently signed into law reform of the nation's contract-based employment system, including provisions regulating the entry, exit and residency requirements for the nation’s two million-plus expatriate labour force. Labour reform is still a work in progress, but these new regulations mark the beginning of the end of the so-called "kafala" laws in Qatar.

The recent reforms to the Kafala system still retain some its most exploitative elements, in particular the exit visa, which requires migrants to obtain their sponsor’s permission to leave the country. The exit visa system has left many migrants stranded for years, and forced others to renounce  past due wages in exchange for their exit.  While some improvement has been made, these changes will not be activated until the end of 2016. More analysis of the recent reforms in our previous article.

Qatar: The government of the State of Qatar takes every opportunity to affirm its appreciation for the contributions made by the millions of workers who have come to Qatar to help us build our nation's infrastructure, and we have demonstrated our commitment to both their labour rights and their human rights.

Qatar: Our government welcomes thoughtful criticism from human rights groups, trade confederations and national labour organizations interested in helping us improve the lives of our guest workers. But we believe that the interests of these workers are best served by criticism and analysis based on fact rather than baseless allegations, and we will continue to correct the record when we feel that the facts regarding labour conditions in Qatar have been misrepresented.

Thoughtful criticism and meaningful engagement with these groups is only possible where transparency and access exist. Qatar has indeed permitted rights groups and trade confederations to observe some labour sites in the past and has held discussions with these groups. However, it has become increasingly restrictive since the World Cup spotlight has revealed the scope of labor abuse.  Qatar should not undercut the progress that it has made by making it difficult for media and rights organizations to carry out independent inspections and checks.

Qatar’s planned reforms are largely the result of organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, its own National Human Rights Committee, grassroots activists, as well as the ITUC, demanding accountability and a commitment to improving labor standards. But announcements of reform are not enough - Qatar must meaningfully engage with these organizations over the long-term, and permit them to operate freely within the country to ensure that change on the ground in actually realized. This includes a more collaborative and public reform process.

It’s true Qatar has made some important changes, doubling the number of labour inspectors in the country and finally penalizing violations of existing regulations. It is true that some media outlets have ran away with and distorted the numbers predicted by the ITUC, demonizing Qataris with the sloppiness the 24-hour news cycle is known to produce.  But while Qatar is not the world’s gravest human rights offender, it should not deflect accountability by (erroneously) pointing out relatively more exploitative countries; such needless competition distracts from its absolute obligations to meeting international labour and human rights standards. Far from transgressions against national sovereignty, these standards reflect global consensus – and as a member of the United Nations and  the International Labour Organization, Qatar itself is party to negotiating this consensus. Yet, five years since winning the distinction to host the 2022 World Cup, Qatar’s halfhearted reforms still leave much to be accomplished.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East