Op-Ed: Qatar should not fail its workers, even as it faces serious challenges of its own

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Jun 7 2017

Qatar is in the cross hairs of GCC politics and in the next few months much of its focus is likely to be on firefighting and playing the international public relations roulette.

While Migrant-Rights.org has no political stand on the GCC fracas, we are conscious that this rift, temporary or otherwise, will impact all residents, and in particular lower income migrant workers. Qatar’s population doubled over the last decade,  hitting the 2.7 million mark last month. This is primarily because of the labour-intensive infrastructure and World Cup-related projects launched during the period.

While Qatar has reformed some labour migration policies, by and large it has maintained the worst of the Kafala system’s provisions.

Further reforms may not be a priority for the country at this point.  Still, it should pay special attention to the vulnerabilities of the large disenfranchised population of migrant workers in these trying times.

Some of the key issues Qatar should keep in mind:

  • Ensuring labour accommodations are well-supplied with essentials, and that the grocery stores in these neighbourhoods are both well-stocked and the goods price-controlled.
  • Companies are required to bear the expense of workers’ travel to and from their home countries at the beginning and end of the contract term. Direct flights are more expensive than those with transit. However, with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain banning flights in and out of Doha, these cheap options would be limited. Fly Dubai and Air Arabia provided the cheapest tickets to Asia and are both headquartered in the Emirates.
    • Workers should not be denied the right to travel or made to bear the expenses due to the forced re-routing. The responsibility still lies with the employer.
  • Qatar has repeatedly assured citizens and residents that the blockade will not affect them or their businesses. However, a significant portion of the material for construction projects does come by road through other Gulf countries, which would now be delayed. Projects delays often result in the benching of workers. This may force them to seek irregular employment if the company doesn’t pay them on time or in full.

  • Furthermore, Saudi and Emirati companies have huge interests in Qatar’s construction sector. These include the Saudi Bin Laden Group, Nakheel, Arabtec, to name just a few. These projects may also face a resource crunch or delays.
    • We have seen that lower income migrant workers are the first to be affected by any delay or financial bottleneck. Of these workers, those who are employed by subcontractors are even more at risk for exploitation. It’s critical that Qatar anticipates resolutions to these issues, including delay in payments, non-payment of wages, or companies failing to process work visas for newly arrived migrant workers, in light of current developments.
  • Qatar has an estimated $335 billion of assets in its sovereign wealth fund but it might not have enough liquidity in the market as the riyal is under pressure. This means that the government itself may not pay its contractors on time, affecting the entire supply chain. For instance, Amnesty’s 2013 report exposed violations primarily on sites that traced directly back to the Qatari government or public sector companies.
    • Now more than ever, Qatar should prioritise the protection of its hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and ensure that liquidity doesn’t affect their livelihood. Subcontractors often operate on the ‘pay when paid’ model, which places the liability on the worker.
  • Ensure safe passage of domestic workers who have been taken across borders by the families employing them.
  • Increase inspections of both labour accommodation and work sites.
  • If a situation arises where food and other essential supplies dry up, the Qatari government must put in place a special task force that caters exclusively to the needs of lower income migrant workers.
Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East