By James M. Dorsey
A long-awaited Qatar Foundation report recommends a radical overhaul of the labour recruitment system in Asian labour exporting countries as well as the Gulf state that expects to host the 2022 World Cup. The report however stops short of calling for the abolition of Qatar’s widely criticized kafala or sponsorship system.
The 163-page report, published amid controversy about the integrity of the Qatari World Cup bid and demands that Qatar be deprived of its hosting rights because of corruption in the recruitment process as well as the working and living conditions of foreign workers who constitute a majority of the Qatari population, is unlikely to deflect criticism of the Gulf state to Asian supplier countries or reduce pressure on Qatar to abolish the kafala system, which puts workers at the mercy of their employers.
To be fair, Qatar Foundation, which is chaired by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, and promotes education, science, and community development, has taken a lead in pushing for reform of the labour system in a bid to counter the criticism and meet international standards.
Qatar has ratified the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Forced Labour, the Palermo Protocol against human trafficking, the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, and the Minimum Age Convention but has rejected conventions on the freedom of association and the right to organize, bargain collectively and to equal remuneration.
The report justifiably seeks to share blame for the poor circumstances of foreign labour with Asian supplier countries — the Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India — that have failed to crackdown on corrupt government agencies and private middle men. Corruption in the Asian part of the recruitment process is however one part of the problem and does not account for Qatar’s apparent inability to vigorously implement existing laws, rules and regulations in its own territory or the snail’s pace with which the government has sought to enshrine labour reforms in its legislation.
The impact of the foundation’s report is likely to be further dulled by the fact that it much like the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy that is responsible for organizing the 2022 World Cup and together with the foundation has taken a lead in advocating labour reform can only ensure implementation of the report’s recommendations in projects that it manages. The report estimates that 64,000 of the 450,000 blue collar workers in Qatar are employed in projects funded by the Qatar Foundation.
Efforts to speed up the process of a nation-wide implementation of labour reform have been stymied by a lack of manpower as well as resistance by significant segments of the Qatari citizenry, who account for a mere 12 percent of the population. Many Qataris fear that tinkering with the labour system will lead to abolition of the kafala system which they see as a barrier to maintaining control of their state, society and culture. Those fears are fuelled by a realization that there are no good solutions to an unviable demography in which 88 percent of the population are guests tolerated only as long as they have a contract.
The report notes that “the regulatory frameworks and highly competitive private sector involvement in recruitment (in Asian supplier countries), through misunderstandings and/or corruption, have fostered, rather than prevented, forced labour, debt bondage and trafficking for labour exploitation. There is a strong history of attempts at government-to-government collaborations and negotiations over the provision of labour to Qatar. This makes it incumbent upon the Qatari authorities to continue such dialogues that focus not only on the supply of labour, but also the conditions of ethical recruitment…to eliminate human and labour rights violations that should include the reduction of recruitment intermediaries.”
To achieve that the report suggests the establishment of a National Employment Bureau in Qatar as well as the conclusion of governmental agreements on ethical recruitment and the creation of an electronic recruitment system. While an online system would go a long way in standardizing the process it is less likely to affect workers increasingly recruited from rural rather than urban areas in Asia who are more susceptible to corrupt middlemen because they have less on and offline access to information.
Those workers are also less likely to benefit from the report’s recommendation that recruitment fees charged to workers be legally classified as bribes. Asians recruited to work in Qatar often do not have a signed contract before departure or are forced under pressure to sign a contract at the airport before departure. They often see their contracts changed once they have landed. Employers are able to exploit the fact that workers have no option to return home when they realize that their contract has been changed to their detriment because of the debt they incurred to land a job.
“The freedom to withdraw one’s labour is a fundamental universal principle. Without it, forced labour will thrive. Most contracts do not make clear the terms and conditions for the termination of the contract. Qatar labour law has provisions for this, but there are ambiguities that need to be addressed,” the report said. It recommends standardized contracts that would be translated into a worker’s native language in a bid to address problems of sponsorship.
The report further noted that its author, Ray Jureidini, a professor in migration studies at Beirut’s Lebanese American University and director of research of Qatar Foundation’s Centre of Design Innovation, could only identify two ethical recruitment agencies in the five countries he studied, one in the Philippines, the other in Nepal. As a result, the report suggests that Qatar could operate its own recruitment system that would have offices in major labour supplying countries. It also recommends monitoring of Qatar-based recruitment agencies to ensure compliance with ethical standards including the ban on charging workers. Doha News reported that Qatar-based recruiters who violated Qatari law would in future be publicly identified in the Gulf state’s media.
In the absence of a free labour market, the report called for the introduction of standardized wages based on experience, qualifications and skill rather than the current system that essentially values labour according to nationality. Rather than challenging the need for an exit visa to leave the country or an employer’s non-objection certificate to change jobs, the report recommends that workers be guaranteed those documents. Qatari businessmen object to the abolition of the required documents not only due to their fear as a minority but also because many of their businesses are run by foreigners who have access to a company’s bank accounts and could leave the country after having helped themselves to the cash.
The Qatar Foundation report, despite an abundance of studies, adds relevant detail to knowledge about the problems involved in the recruitment of foreign labour to Qatar and other states. It is however long evident to Qataris and non-Qataris what the issues and what the solutions are. Qatar needs to be seen to not only embracing reform with lofty words and pledges and hefty reports but with legislative change and change on the ground. That is the only way the Gulf state will be able to reverse the reputational damage it has suffered in recent years and build the kind of soft and subtle power it seeks.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.