Qatar introduces new workers’ rights but conditions are still exploitive, reports claim
The renovation of the Khalifa International Stadium in 2016. Photo: jbdoane/Flickr
07.09.2018By Stine Alvad
On 4 September 2018, a new law was introduced in Qatar. The law lets many of the country’s 1.9 million foreign workers leave the country without having to obtain an exit visa, something that could previously only be obtained through the employers.
This new regulation is a part of a reform process improving workers’ rights in Qatar and is designed to benefit the many workers coming to Qatar from countries like Nepal, Indonesia and Bangladesh, including the around 26.000 workers working on the eight World Cup stadiums planned for use during the 2020 FIFA World Cup in the country.
The new law amendment was hailed by the International Laour Organisation (ILO) as a change that will have a “positive impact” on the migrant workers’ lives.
"This first step towards full suppression of exit permits is a clear sign of commitment by the Government of Qatar to labour reforms and a key milestone in the process. The ILO will continue to work closely with the government of Qatar on these reforms," said Houtan Homayounpour, the Head of the ILO Project Office for the State of Qatar according to a press release from the ILO.
In 2017, the ILO entered a three-year-agreement with the government of Qatar containing various improvements on working conditions in the country. According to Dr. Issa Saad Al Jafali Al Nuaimi, Qatari Minister of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs, this new law supports that agreement.
"The adoption of this law is another step in our continued drive to provide decent work for all migrant workers in Qatar and to ensure their protection," Al Nuaimi states in the ILO press release.
Exploitive practices and human rights violations
Qatar has been under fire from a number of human rights organisations over the country’s way of treating its migrant workers. With Qatar winning the hosting rights of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the critique only grew stronger. A 2012 report from Human Right Watch, talked about "pervasive employer exploitation and abuse of workers in Qatar’s construction industry" and an Amnesty International report from 2016 described the migrant workers as "subjected to a range of exploitative practices".
One of the most severely critisised aspects of Qatar’s employment conditions is the Kafala system, which requires foreign workers to have a national ‘sponsor’ that has substantial control over the worker.
While Amnesty International sees the recent law as "an important first step towards dismantling its exploitative sponsorship system,” there is still a lot to be done, said Stephen Cockburn, Deputy Director of the Global Issues Programme at Amnesty International.
“[I]t is essential that further steps are taken to ensure all migrant workers in Qatar are freed from travel restrictions, including domestic workers who remain at risk of continued exploitation and abuse. There should be no exceptions to protecting fundamental human rights,” Cockburn said.
Recent reports back this stance. While the new law is an improvement of the labour rights in Qatar, basic working conditions still lack and violations of regulations already in force take place openly, recent reports say.
Still breaches of very basic laws
In a report by German news site Deutsche Welle, a journalist went to one of the 2022 World Cup stadia construction sites and found several workers in action between 11:30 am and 3 pm. This is a breach of existing regulations that defines that period as a rest period during the hottest months of the year due to very high temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius. There are regularly reports of deaths among workers, last month fx. a Nepali worker was reported dead while working on the Al Wakrah stadium. The exact number of Qatar workers who have died from work-related causes is unclear, but many of the deaths are believed to be caused by overheating.
"This incident suggests contractors are not even abiding by the very basic laws," says Nicholas McGeehan Human Rights Watch expert on migrant workers, when confronted with the findings. And because of it taking place at a site under the auspices of the Local Organising Committee, the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, which oversees the FIFA related construction work, it is even more severe.
"It calls into question not only the committee's ability to protect workers but its commitment to that endeavor," he says to DW.
The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy says it is concerned by the reports and promises to initiate an investigation into the violations, it stated when asked to comment on DW’s findings.
"Our workers' welfare department and health & safety teams, working with the relevant government bodies, are now conducting a thorough investigation. We will take corrective and punitive action in the event of any breach of our standards or the law."
In another report by Asian Times, a Bangladeshi worker at one of Qatar’s construction sites speaks about the conditions under which he works.
"I didn’t visit home this year. I received no money for my ticket. My passport is with my contractor. I can’t leave without his approval," he said, according to Asia Times who has also spoken to a Qatar-based social worker who says that many of the workers have not yet felt much progress in terms of their employment, neither do they have much knowledge about their rights.
"Most of these workers have no idea what these recent agreements have been about and what rights have been given to them," said the social worker who wishes to remain anonymous.