By James M. Dorsey
The adoption of a human rights declaration by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that was designed to shield wealthy Gulf monarchies including 2022 World Cup host Qatar from criticism by human rights and trade union activists is likely to increase pressure on the sports-focused Gulf state to significantly alter its controversial migrant labour system.
The declaration by the GCC which groups Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman was adopted earlier this month at a summit of Gulf leaders in the Qatari capital Doha. The declaration signalled the GCC’s refusal to recognize its citizen’s political rights including the right to freedom of thought and expression. It did however acknowledge that “people are equal in dignity and humanity, in rights and freedoms, and equal before the law” with “no distinction between them for reasons of origin, gender, religion, language, colour, or any other form of distinction.”
That acknowledgement strengthens demands by human rights and trade union activists that Qatar embrace the principle of collective bargaining that would eliminate its system of setting wages for migrant workers according to nationality.
Proponents of a radical reform of Qatar’s sponsorship or kafala system that puts workers at the mercy of their employers have argued that Qatar needs to introduce a uniform minimum wage and authorize collective bargaining – a key demand of the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICTU), one of Qatar’s toughest critics.
Standards for the working and living conditions of migrant workers issued by the Qatar Foundation (QF), one of two government institutions alongside the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy at the forefront of a push for change, insist that “workers shall receive equal pay for equal work irrespective of their nationality, gender, ethnic origin, race, religion or legal status.” The 2022 committee’s standards stress equal treatment of workers.
A report to the foundation by migration scholar Ray Jureidini said that “it is not entirely certain how the comparative wage differences have been derived, or why.” The report recommended introduction of a minimum wage to eliminate discriminatory wage policies as part of an effort to ensure Qatar’s competitiveness.
“If Qatar wishes to have wage rates of migrant workers set by supply and demand in a local labour market, then it will need to lift the current kafala sponsorship system, allow workers to change employers without sponsor approval (as is now the case in Bahrain), allow collective bargaining to take place that will establish wage rates, terms and conditions of all occupations filled by non-Qataris in the country”, Mr. Jureidini said. A similar recommendation was made by the United Nations Special Rapporteur for migrants’ human rights.
With the executive committee of FIFA meeting in Morocco, a member of the committee, Thomas Zwanziger, warned that the world soccer body could deprive Qatar of its World Cup hosting rights if the Gulf state failed to implement recommendations that included the creation of a minimum wage for each category of construction worker made by a Qatar-sponsored review of its labour legislation by British-based law firm DLA Piper. The review called for far-reaching reforms including abolition of the kafala system and proposed the establishment of an independent commission to oversee the reform process.
“The Qataris have to establish by the 10 March 2015 deadline the independent commission proposed by the Piper report that would regularly control human rights on World Cup construction sites and monitor progress… We had hoped that we would take a big step forward with the Piper report because we were under the impression that the Qataris understood… Unfortunately, almost nothing has happened until today. I strongly doubt the will to change something of the Qataris,” German publication Sport Bild quoted Mr. Zwanziger as saying.
Mr. Zwanziger said in case of a Qatari failure to meet the March deadline “I would expect that a national association would request that the 209 member associations withdraw the World Cup from Qatar at the FIFA Congress in late May in Zurich.”
Qatar has been slow in acting on pledges it has made as well as recommendations in a slew of reports published in recent years. Qatari officials said a reform of the country’s labour law was likely by the end of this. The reform is expected however to fall far short of the demands of activists and the recommendations made in the various reports.
Moreover, the standards enunciated by the foundation and committee are only binding for parties contracting with the two institutions. Qatar has so far missed an opportunity to curry good will with its critics by enshrining those standards in national law.
Qatar’s reluctance to act decisively in response to the criticism of its labour system is rooted in its demography; foreigners account for 88 percent of Qatar’s population. As a result, Qatar’s fear that their need for foreign labour at all levels of society threatens their grip on their state and culture. That fear means that the government is caught in a Catch-22: it needs to respond aggressively to international criticism but move gradually to maintain domestic cohesion.
Demography has also played into allegations by Qatar’s distractors that the Gulf state lacks a passionate fan culture. Stadia are often largely empty during sporting events. To counter the criticism, Qatar allegedly pays migrant workers up to 30 Qatari riyals ($8) to attend sporting events at times dressed up in Qatari national dress.
“For this pittance, workers from Africa and Asia sprint under blinding sun in the Doha industrial zone where they’re housed and surround a still-moving bus like bees on honey. They sit through volleyball, handball and football, applaud to order, do the wave with no enthusiasm and even dress up in white robes and head-scarves as Qataris, to plump up ‘home’ crowds,” said John Leicester, an Associated Press reporter who joined one of three busses carrying some 150 workers paid to attend a volleyball match.
Mr. Leicester reported that there were discrepancies in payments made to different workers to attend a sporting event. “Numerous workers said they regularly make up numbers at sports events. Qatar league football games pay 20 or 25 riyals, they said. A Kenyan said he made 50 riyals at handball.”
The presenter of last month’s successful Qatari bid for the 2019 World Athletics Championship, Aphrodite Moschoudi, noted that „Qatar has a true passion for sports. Everything in our country revolves around sport.“ Quipped Mr. Leicester: “Or, when passion is lacking, around money.”
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.