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UN official presents report on structural racism and ‘de facto caste system’ of Qatar

On July 15, 2020

The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Tendayi Achiume, has raised her concerns on the structural and systemic forms of racism in Qatar.

Following her country visit (24 November - 1 December 2019), she presents her findings to the 44th Human Rights Council meeting today.

The “de facto caste system based on national origin,” she stated, “results in structural discrimination against non-citizens, including as the result of immense power imbalances between employers and migrant workers rooted in the kafala (sponsorship) system that historically structured labour relations in Qatar.”

A few key concerns demanding immediate attention are:

  • “...structural forms of racial discrimination against nonnationals because of the way that bilateral agreements, transnational labour recruitment practices, Qatari labour and residency laws, private sector contracts and practices, and other factors combine in complex ways to condition human rights significantly on the basis of national origin and nationality. To put the issue differently, for many in Qatar, national origin and nationality determines the extent of their enjoyment of their human rights. Other factors such as class, gender and disability status are also salient, but stratification of quality of life according to nationality and national origin on the scale the Special Rapporteur witnessed during her visit raises serious concerns of structural racial discrimination against non-nationals in Qatar. The Special Rapporteur offers examples in the sections below.”
  • “...many inequalities are determined by policies in countries of origin. At the same time, discrimination and inequality are also a product of Qatari public and private sector policies and practices. The Government must take urgent steps to dismantle what is in effect a quasi-caste system based on national origin. [...] The country’s human rights obligations require it to eliminate labour market discrimination and segregated or discriminatory housing practices, and to ensure that businesses open to the general public do not engage in racial discrimination.”
  • “...many domestic workers, who are predominantly women, confront distinct and extreme difficulties in Qatar, and face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, including extreme human rights violations due to their gender, nationality, temporary worker status and low income. [...] Many are subjected to harsh working conditions: excessively long workdays with no rest and no days off; passport and mobile phone confiscation; physical and social isolation; and, in some cases, physical, verbal or sexual assault by employers and their teenage or adult children. 
  • “The Special Rapporteur heard testimonies from domestic workers who reported being denied food for prolonged periods, being regularly forced to subsist on leftovers or insufficiently nutritious food, and, in some cases, starvation. Two sub-Saharan domestic workers testified regarding their experiences of chilling and horrifying sexual abuse – one reported being regularly raped by her male employer for over a year, before she was able to escape from his home. 
  • “The decision to create a separate law (No. 15 of 2017) to govern the rights of domestic workers, rather than include them under the Labour Law (No. 14 of 2004),  which applies to other migrant workers, has further marginalized domestic workers. Law No. 15 of 2017 offers lower levels of protections than the Labour Law.”

Some of the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur include:

  • “Effectively address wage discrimination based on nationality by ensuring that migrant workers are paid equal pay for equal work, irrespective of their nationality, in conformity with international standards.” 
  • “Address the confinement of domestic workers and monitor their working conditions effectively, including by facilitating labour inspections that take into account the specific challenges and needs of domestic workers; and remove any legal and administrative restrictions that prevent such monitoring, especially in private homes; (c) Systematically investigate all allegations of exploitation, abuse and violence against domestic workers, including rape and sexual abuse, and prosecute alleged abusive employers, and, if they are convicted, punish them with sanctions commensurate with the gravity of the offence.”

In January 2019, the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in its concluding observations on Qatar, a party to the corresponding convention, also highlighted similar concerns as those stated above. The committee pointed out discriminatory pay scales based on nationality, no right to family reunification for migrant workers, and the exclusion of migrant domestic workers from the labour code. 

Qatar has been the most open of the GCC countries in inviting visits by several mandates of the UN Special Procedures throughout the end of 2019. However, it withdrew its invitation to the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, whose visit was slated for January 2020. Qatar’s successful bid for the 2020 FIFA world cup has opened up the country to severe scrutiny, particularly around its treatment of migrant workers, who make up over 90% of the population.

International NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and trade unions such as International Trade Union Confederation and Building and Wood Workers’ International have over the years reported on violations of human rights against migrant workers in the country.

While this international pressure has resulted in substantial reforms, Qatar still trails behind on implementing meaningful changes to the lives of migrants who build the country, and structural forms of racism persist. This has further been exacerbated by the Covid19 crisis.