Workers in Qatar remain voiceless and invisible, despite reforms and international furore
Will the momentum for change continue beyond the World Cup?
In just two weeks, the FIFA 2022 men’s football World Cup will kick off at Al Bayt stadium in Qatar. And the din of protests and criticism, defence and denial, is reaching unprecedented levels.
While Qatar has reformed laws and has been more open than the rest of the GCC states in engaging with its critics, it will also pull off the World Cup without having to really bring about meaningful change or engage with those most impacted by its laws and policies. Qatar can do the dance with western critics, knowing well that it doesn’t have to change anything on the ground.
The off-stadium performance – criticism, engage, offend, defend, rinse, repeat – appears to have actually played in favour of Qatar. As long as the criticism comes from those on the outside, the response will be iterations of public relations spiel with kernels of truth – at times boasting of progress and other times claiming to be a victim of concerted attack.
From the new airport that will receive fans, the cabs that will ferry guests to the hotels, the hotels themselves, and the stadiums where 32 of the best national teams in the world will compete, every bite and every move one takes in Qatar is made possible by the labour of a million and a half workers from countries in Asia and Africa. Men and women who are recruited not for their skills alone, but for how poorly their skills are valued, so that they can deliver essential services without occupying space in the country or claiming any kind of belonging, being rendered invisible by the system and trapped in a ‘de facto caste system based on national origin’.
These hundreds of thousands of workers do not have a voice and have deliberately been excluded from the negotiations and advocacy around their human rights. The low-income migrant workers are seen as needy of external intervention, but it is reductive to see them all as merely victims. While Qatar itself provides no platform for them to express their agency, international organisations that the country engages with have been playing the role of gatekeepers, curating the experiences of migrant workers to suit the agenda of the organisation.
So, you would have a respected international union that had been instrumental in committing Qatar to labour reforms, now repeatedly peddling half-truths about Kafala being dead (not-so-fun fact: it is alive and kicking) in order to maintain access to the government. You have local media that repeatedly publishes the government’s denial and success story, without question. Meanwhile, international media organisations continue to report on the issue, with varying degrees of credibility.
In all this, the few workers who dare to speak up or protest are harassed, detained, and deported.
For 12 years, Qatar has chosen to firefight the barrage of global criticism, instead of creating an enabling environment for free press, freedom of association, and for local civil society to take root. Grassroots partners are essential for meaningful change towards a more just society.
Submission or deportation
This state of affairs is by design. Allowing a vibrant civil society would mean more and more workers would have stood up and fought for their rights, demanded to be paid for the work they’ve done, and demanded to be treated with dignity. Now, the few that went against the tide and did protest have been dealt with a heavy hand.
The country claims that it was a law and order issue, but the truth is it was a legitimate protest to recover their earned wages. Even Qatar cannot deny the rampant wage theft in the country. An ILO progress report released this week testifies that wage theft (or non-payment) is rampant.
“Between October 2021 and October 2022, MOL received 34,425 complaints, primarily through the online complaints platform. […] As with last year, the main causes of complaints concerned non-payment of wages and end-of-service benefits, and annual leave not being granted or paid. In 84 per cent of cases brought before the DSCs, the judge ruled in favour of the worker.”
By Qatar’s own admission, this is a large-scale problem, and yet workers do not have the right to protest or collectively negotiate, even as international trade unions will be at the table with government officials. Allowing workers to speak up would also mean including them more broadly in socio-cultural and economic spaces, which in turn would make them more visible. Again, not something that goes well with the glitz and glamour Qatar aspires to. So what is perceived as the undesirable side of frantic economic and labour activity is pushed to the margins, and ghettoised. As illustrated by the recent evictions of low-income workers (dubiously dubbed ‘bachelors’) from central parts of the city, in an effort to “clean up” before the World Cup.
"For 12 years, Qatar has chosen to firefight the barrage of global criticism, instead of creating an enabling environment for free press, freedom of association, and for local civil society to take root. Grassroots partners are essential for meaningful change towards a more just society. "
Failing to plan, planning to fail
At a recent conference in Doha, during a panel discussion on ‘Promoting Health And Wellbeing Among The Global Migrant Workforce’, the head of an international trade union announced that the Kafala is dead. Dovetailing on that claim, a Qatari official said the country was a victim of unfair criticism, and that the population has tripled in a short time and there would naturally be some issues to deal with. They made a hypothetical comparison to how developed countries would have struggled with such a population influx too. True. The population has multiplied, with intent by the state, but the failure to plan for that is the fault of the government machinery.
At the time of winning the bid to host the World Cup in 2010, the population stood at 1.8 million. In 2021, it was 2.9 million. Close to a million people were recruited and invited to participate in the economy and build the country. This wasn’t a charitable pursuit to warrant the argument made. This was a for-profit endeavour. While making it easy for companies, manpower suppliers, and recruitment agents to bring in workers, the country failed to put in place facilities to support that population growth.
The judicial mechanisms, urban planning, public transport, and related infrastructure have not been upgraded sufficiently to meet this surge in population, which in turn increases the vulnerability of the hundreds of thousands who live on the margins of a wealthy society.
Health, mortality and access to services
Qatar does have a robust healthcare system and access for migrants is fairly smooth. It has announced a mandatory private health insurance scheme which will replace this in the coming months, and how that compares to the current system remains to be seen.
It has also introduced heat stress legislation that expanded the hours of midday work ban, including a temperature threshold at which all work must stop. These regulations are better than what exists in other GCC countries. Though not explicit by law, security guards continue to be exempted from the midday ban.
Heat stress, though a critical factor, is not the only one that affects migrant worker health. Quality of accommodation, nutrition and working conditions all have an adverse effect. The mortality rate among young migrant workers remains high, with many deaths being attributed to natural causes, even though workers undergo stringent pre-departure health screening in order to get a work visa.
Qatar has also failed to investigate worker deaths, despite repeated calls to do so, thereby failing to prevent avoidable deaths and find a solution for the high mortality rate. [Read our report Dropping Dead: Qatar’s death certificates for migrant workers are a template for denial]
"Close to a million people were recruited and invited to participate in the economy and build the country. This wasn’t a charitable pursuit to warrant the argument made. This was a for-profit endeavour."
Laws, reforms, and ground realities
When we speak of reforms that impact migrant workers in Qatar, we are usually referring to specific labour codes or immigration laws, with narrow interpretation. However, the working and living conditions are not determined by this handful of laws alone. There is a network of legislation across various ministries that influence workers’ rights. And there are practices and prejudices that are almost like customary law, even if they’re not codified.
So when we hear of ‘kafala being abolished’ it must be immediately called out.
One cannot speak of migrant rights and labour rights separate from universal human rights. The reforms do just that. By treating workers as temporary and dispensable, Qatar is creating a bubble of rights and reforms and disregarding the overwhelming marginalisation and denial of socio-economic inclusion. This is important context to keep in mind while breaking down the actual ‘reforms’.
There is now a ‘non-discriminatory’ minimum wage – a paltry QR1000 (US$275). In comparison, the per capita GDP of Qatar is US$62000. Qatar’s per capita Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) is US$92000. Set so low, the minimum wage is almost a joke and an explicit admission that the employer/sponsor, the big businesses, will control the lives of those they employ.
They will provide the workers with food, accommodation, and transport, and if the sponsor fails to do so satisfactorily, filing a complaint or raising one’s voice would mean losing even those minimum protections, being rendered homeless, with little or no option but to leave the country, and giving up all claims or hopes of justice.
Those who earn the lowest do not even have an option to independently open a bank account, as their salaries are too low to do so. Their account would be linked to their employer under the Wage Protection System (WPS). Which means every penny they earn is remittance. They have no financial security where they live and work.
When this is the case, where they are kept on the brink of penury, they are wont to shy away from claiming their rights. Even if reforms (on paper) allow workers to change jobs or exit the country without their sponsor’s permission, it comes with the risk of financial retribution migrant workers can ill-afford.
Wage theft is undeniably the worst form of exploitation workers face. The WPS is supposed to prevent and/or identify payment violations early on. It has consistently failed to do so. The ILO report says the dramatic increase in disbursements from the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund demonstrates the scale of wage theft.
Up until July 2022, QAR 582,400,000 (USD 160m) had been disbursed to over 37,000 workers. This increased to QAR 1,165,316,181 (over USD 320m) of unpaid wages and benefits until 30 September 2022. This demonstrates the scale of the issue of unpaid wages.
Yet, despite publicly recognising the scale of the problem, an April 2022 ministerial decision put a cap on maximum disbursement of financial entitlements. Access to the fund is dependent on the final decision by the disputes committee or final judgement of a court, with all other disbursements dependent on ‘reason of public interest’.
The maximum disbursement of financial entitlements under the present Decision shall be in accordance with the following:
1- Existing companies: a salary of three months and a maximum of (20,000) twenty thousand riyals.
2- Expired companies: a salary of two months and a maximum of (12,000) twelve thousand riyals.
3- Domestic workers: a salary of three months and a maximum of (8,000) eight thousand riyals.
Since most complaints are filed only after several months of non-payment, this cap is hugely problematic. It also does not fully account for compensating workers for hardships endured and end-of-service benefits. Not to mention, the clearly discriminatory nature of compensation for domestic workers. Since the non-discriminatory minimum wage applies to domestic workers too, it is incomprehensible why their settlements would have to be less than half of those in the private sector.
"There is now a ‘non-discriminatory’ minimum wage – a paltry QR1000 (US$275). In comparison, the per capita GDP of Qatar is US$62000. Qatar’s per capita Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) is US$92000. Set so low, the minimum wage is almost a joke and an explicit admission that the employer/sponsor, the big businesses, will control the lives of those they employ."
One must also keep in mind that these funds are disbursed only to those who have persisted and endured the slow-moving justice mechanism, and seen their complaints through until it has reached the disputes settlement committee. Most workers give up and leave without receiving any or all of their dues, as staying back to fight would mean taking on powerful employers without the required support system. By the time workers decide to file a complaint or go to court, it’s too late. [See infographic on Wage Theft]
Disputes settlement and court cases take anywhere between three months to over a year, and even at the end of it, with a favourable judgement, there is no assurance that workers will receive all their dues. The lack of trade unions, civil society organisations and legal aid makes it impossible for workers to receive the kind of financial support and guidance required to endure the months of fighting for justice.
International unions that hold cooperation agreements with Qatar have Community Liaison Officers (CLO) who play this role. But the half a dozen CLOs are not equipped to deal with problems of such scale, affecting over a million workers.
Job mobility (removal of the requirement for No Objection Certificate or NOC) was announced with great fanfare and functioned smoothly the first few months, until local businesses and the powerful started pushing back. The progress was quietly scaled back by introducing an approved resignation letter to the job change process, a de facto NOC. Research by MR and other organisations shows the continuing difficulty in changing jobs, but the ILO report says that between November 2020 and August 2022, a total of 532,290 applications were received, and 348,455 applications were approved by the Ministry of Labour.
These figures are likely of those who managed to successfully submit the applications online, while those who were unable to do so (mainly due to the resignation letter requirement) complained that the online system did not permit them to proceed with job change requests, and they had to go in person to the Ministry in person with little or no success.
Absconding laws are also frequently misused by employers to counter complaints or job change requests that workers file. It’s most vicious in the case of domestic workers, for whom the household is the workplace and stepping out without their employer’s permission is considered running away. Absconding laws allow employers to file a case against workers on charges of absence from work. [For a comprehensive analysis of this law, read Huroob, Runaway, Absconding: Trapping migrants in extreme abuse].
While we speak in broad terms of migrant workers, we must also recognise that there is an even more invisible population in the farming, fishing and domestic work sectors, the majority of whom are women, who are exempted from the protections of the labour law. The domestic workers law passed in 2017 does little to protect workers from abusive employers, and even less to hold employers accountable. They remain neglected in the rights conversation.
Women migrants, particularly those in domestic work, but also in cleaning, hospitality and retail, suffer all of these restrictions in addition to gender-based exclusions.
"The lack of trade unions, civil society organisations, and legal aid makes it impossible for workers to receive the kind of financial support and guidance required to endure the months of fighting for justice."
The powerful enjoy impunity
The greatest challenge to enforcing the laws and implementing reforms is the impunity enjoyed by the powerful. Their family names are represented in all of the important forums, be it the Shura Council or the chamber of commerce. You have repeat offenders being rewarded with new contracts.
As argued earlier, advocates for Qatar insist that cultural change will take longer and reforms have to be celebrated. But this is not about cultural change alone, this is about laws being seen in silos without recognising that a single law or reform is only as strong as the weakest law in the stable. It is also about the lack of accountability when it comes to big businesses.
Qatar winning the bid to host the World Cup opened a pandora’s box and provided an entry point for transnational advocacy. But the country’s ambitions do not end come December.
World Cup-related infrastructure projects were valued at US$300 billion, with about US$10 billion on stadiums alone. According to some intelligence reports, the construction market will be valued at $76.98 billion by 2026, setting its average annual growth at 10.54% for the period 2021-2026.
Who is winning these projects? Who is building? The power lies in a handful of powerful local businesses who either bid and win independently or as joint ventures with some of the largest multinational companies (MNC) from France, Italy, the US and UK, Japan and South Korea. And while they bring their technical know-how, they quite easily compromise on the rights of those whom they employ. Recruiting cheaply and from afar, with little or no accountability, and indulging in or turning a blind eye to practices that would draw censure in countries the MNCs are headquartered.
Criticism raised in this regard is often countered with the project-specific worker welfare standards for legacy projects that are put in place, be it by the Supreme Committee or Qatar Foundation. These are world-class standards, however, they’re not the law. The penalty for non-compliance is losing a bid. It does not hold in a court of law, which leads to companies having duplicitous standards. The workers on these projects will have better living and working conditions, but they are in the minority. Those on other projects — employed by the same company — will still suffer.
"Project-specific worker welfare standards for legacy projects are world-class. However, they’re not the law. The penalty for non-compliance is losing a bid. It does not hold in a court of law, which leads to companies having duplicitous standards."
Have things changed for the better in the last 12 years? Yes and no. We have seen legislative reforms, though lacking in implementation and sound grievance mechanisms. We also saw an unprecedented openness to international media, international organisations, and UN mechanisms, while local media and civil society continue to be strangled.
We saw a technical cooperation with the International Labour Organisation, and new labour standards were introduced. Yet, of the ILO’s four fundamental principles, three remain unmet: Freedom of association and collective bargaining; elimination of forced labour and elimination of discrimination in employment.
Instead, we see voluntary worker-management joint committees and welfare standards that give corporations the power and responsibility that should ideally be that of the state. The hallmark of a successful capitalist economy, moving away from binding commitments to feel-good, CSR-like initiatives.
No doubt, there has been a certain momentum of change built over the last dozen years, which may not be maintained post-2022 as the global spotlight on Qatar fades. But Qatar’s ambitions will remain bright, and for it to truly walk the talk on rights it must allow for more grassroots movements, hold employers accountable, investigate deaths and not deflect any and all criticism as being racist or unfounded, especially since it is an impossible task to hide the poor treatment of the disempowered who constitute the majority population.
Edited: Al Bayt stadium in Doha has been corrected to Qatar.