Labour rights in Qatar - last thing on their minds?

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Qatar is facing a barrage of criticism now over its treatment of Asian workers hired to build infrastructure for its staging of the World Cup 2022. The Guardian revealed in September that dozens of Nepalis had died in recent months, working up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week in scorching temperatures and stifling humidity in the heart of a Gulf summer. At the same time, Francois Crepeau, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, urged Qatar this month in Doha to ditch the sponsorship system for hiring foreigners, which he said has been a primary cause of the abuse that they suffer. Sponsorship means that employees cannot change jobs or even leave the country without the permission of their sponsors, an arrangement that favoured Western nationals in white-collar work usually manage to avoid by retaining their passports. Just over a week later, Amnesty International had its say in “The dark side of migration: spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup”, a report that described workers as being treated like animals and even referred to construction of Fifa’s own headquarters in Doha.

Qatar has been taken aback by the sudden outburst of criticism. Enjoying close ties with Western governments, particularly the UK, France, and the United States, it tends to expect a free ride and therefore ill-equipped to respond. Some government ministries, for example, do not as yet have their own internal email or intranet systems. When The Guardian story broke in September, PR consultants working with the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee (Q22), the organising committee for the competition, found themselves having to coax isolated ministries to co-ordinate for the first time over a public response to the story. They are learning. Q22 issued a response on 18 November explaining that it was drafting a “Workers’ Welfare Standards” document setting clear guidelines for companies recruiting workers that would be stringently monitored.

But campaigners for workers’ rights point out two factors that hamper Qatar’s ability to address the issue seriously. Firstly, Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup is simultaneous with a stage of urban development and state building for Qatar that involves massive construction at breakneck speed all over Doha – like Dubai, Doha is a city whose rulers want it shining, other-worldly, and finished, yesterday. The World Cup construction projects are just one element in a vast scheme to transform Doha into a city like no other. Qatar has become the new Wild West, and when there’s a rush for gold, it’s paradoxically difficult to ensure the rights and standards for those at the bottom of the system.

Secondly, Qataris are acutely aware that they form less than 300,000 people among a total population that has hit 1.9 million, and Qatar’s ambitious development plans, set out in a 2008 document called “Qatar National Vision 2030”, expect the population to grow to around 5 million. This has engendered a schizophrenic approach to development – loving it, yet loathing it at the same time – centred on the fear of Qatar and its traditional culture drowning in a sea of foreigners.

Having had no say in these development plans, ordinary Qataris have a tendency to behave like victims. A labour ministry official had no sympathy for expat labour when I talked to him after The Guardian story came out in September. The numbers were exaggerated, he said, and people are not obliged to come and work in the country. Also, intellectuals give voice to these resentments that among others may be expressed in disparaging remarks or rude behaviour towards some foreigners. “We feel it’s gone beyond what we want; it’s uncontrollable”, a novelist told me recently. “All these people are coming to work in Qatar in a short period of time, there is no screening, and they are not selected well”, he said.

The Guardian article caused one local newspaper to publish the size of different national communities in Qatar, the first time Qataris had seen the stark realities confirmed to them in print. It revealed that the country is home to 500,000 Indians, 184,000 Filipinos, and 100,000 Lebanese. “We’re not even the biggest community!” remarked Saad al-Matwi, a columnist in the daily al-Arab. “Judiciary, police, water, electricity, roads – the system can’t cope and hasn’t adjusted”, he said. As Matwi pointed out, in these plans, money meets ambition: the luxury residential district on reclaimed land known as The Pearl is just one project widely rumoured by Qataris to be fronted by Hamad bin Jassim, the prime minister and foreign minister who stood down with former emir Sheikh Hamad in the power handover to his son Tamim earlier this year.

Sensing popular unease, the authorities have tried to appease conservative Salafi currents in Qatari society, such as by building a mosque in the name of Mohammed Ibn Abdalwahhab, the preacher who gave his name to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism, and banning alcohol in restaurants on The Pearl. Qataris are usually prevented from entering the hotel bars where foreigners drink. One reason for the installation of Hamad’s son Tamim as emir at this juncture was to send a message to Qataris that their rulers are in tune with their concerns and want to refocus attention on the problems of developing Doha. (Road works have gone up all over the city ahead of Tamim’s first national day on 18 December.)

So, with the highest per capita income in the world and nine years to go before the World Cup kicks off, Qatar has ample time to solve its PR problem and become a role model for treatment of labour in rapidly expanding economies. But the dynamics of a small insular community thrust unknowingly into a state-building project of major proportions complicate the issue and could militate against the country’s willingness to tackle labour rights in a meaningful manner.

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