Qatar steps up efforts to protect migrant workers’ rights, but activists are not celebrating just yet

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Gireesh Kumar, an engineer from the south Indian state of Kerala at a company in Qatar, is quite hopeful as the Qatari government is initiating wide-ranging reforms in its labour system to protect and respect migrant workers’ rights.

Gireesh who joined an oil company in Qatar some two years ago was betrayed by the recruitment agent itself in India and his employer in Doha. Upon arrival in Qatar, Gireesh was given a different job contract with less salary and perks and additionally his passport was taken back by his employer restricting his travel.

“I have been fighting with the employer to get back my passport for the last eight months. Additionally, I have been duped with respect to the salary,” Gireesh said.

Even though Qatar has banned employers from holding back passports of workers, many employers continue to do so by restricting workers’ movement.

Additionally, the migrant worker requires an exit permit, a no objection letter from his employer, to leave the country and contract substitution is normal in Qatar.

On Wednesday, ahead of an International Labour Organisation (ILO) meeting, the Qatari local media quoted government officials and reported on certain reforms which could be helpful for 2.6 million migrant workers in the country.

As part of the reforms, Qatar will set up new protections for migrant workers, including instituting a minimum wage that will no longer discriminate based on race and creating workplace committees with elected labour representatives.

The most significant change may be new rules that will allow Qatar’s migrant workers to change jobs or leave the country on their own, without approval from their employer.

Currently, Arab countries, including Qatar, “kafala” system, which binds the migrant workers to the employer.

The local media quoting Dr. Issa Saad Al Jafali Al Nuaimi, the Qatari minister of labour affairs, reported that the reforms will “meet the necessary needs of the worker to live at an appropriate humanitarian level.

Interestingly, Qatar has announced the reforms on the eve of an International Labour Organisation (ILO) meeting that could see the launch of a formal investigation by the UN agency into Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers.

The ILO meeting, which is starting on Thursday in Geneva, is expected to run until 9 November, with Qatar being discussed towards the end of the meeting.

If the UN agency decides to launch an investigation, it could prove embarrassing for Qatar and other organisations, including world football’s governing body, FIFA.

Global scrutiny of Qatar’s labor system began to intensify in 2010, when FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, awarded the country the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

According to Amnesty International, migrants building a state-of-the-art stadium for the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar are abused and exploited – while FIFA makes huge profits.

The latest data reveals that the migrant workers constitute around 88 per cent of the total population. There are 650,000 Indians among the migrant workers.

According to Sharron Burrow, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) chief, negotiations with the Qatar Government have resulted in a set of reforms that will normalise industrial relations.

“This signals the start of real reforms in Qatar and puts the country on the pathway to meeting its international legal obligations on workers’ rights,” she said.

The ITUC claims to have secured the agreement of the government in Qatar to significantly improve the physical and employment situation of migrant workers.

In June 2014, delegates of the International Labour Organization (ILO) filed a complaint alleging Qatar’s non-observance of the 1930 Forced Labour Convention and the 1947 Labour Inspection Convention.

The ILO subsequently gave Qatar in March 2016 one year to reform the kafala system of sponsorship-based employment and its labour laws before taking a decision on the launch of an official Commission of Inquiry (COI), the agency’s highest level of sanction.

At its 329th session in March 2017, the ILO continued its scrutiny of forced labour in Qatar and deferred its decision to launch a COI until its session this month.

In a report, Amnesty International says that the migrant workers are forced to spend exorbitant amounts as recruitment fee, live in appalling accommodations, forced to work for less salary than what is promised in the initial offer letter, are paid delayed salaries, not allowed to change job, leave country, threatened and subjected to forced labour.

Meanwhile, welcoming the progressive steps, James Lynch, Deputy Director of the Global Issues Programme at Amnesty International, said that it is a welcome step that offers a prospect of hope for migrant workers in Qatar.

“There are some positive commitments – in particular relating to unpaid wages,” he added. “However, the question of whether this is a true game changer will be answered by the actions of the government in the coming period,” he added.

Hundreds of migrant workers are forced to give up unpaid wages and return.

Suresh B, an engineer from Kerala, had to give up around Rs 50 lakh unpaid salary and return.

“Salaries were pending due to fund shortage. Our company bills were getting stuck in banks as the main company was running short of money. Everywhere, there is a crisis due to the oil price dip. I didn’t want to get stuck there. So, I filed a case, gave a power of attorney to a lawyer and returned,” Suresh who is setting a medical equipment sales business in Kerala following his return in August, said.

Recently, media reported that around 2,500 workers belonging to one company were left in lurch as the company failed to pay their salary for three months.

Nilambar Badal, a migrants’ rights activist in Nepal, said that often the come across migrant workers getting stranded in Qatar.

“Passport seizure, salary delays, wage discrimination based on race, inadequate accommodation, lack of health insurance coverage….the list of exploitation is endless. Hopeful that Qatar sticks to its new reform package and workers’ rights get protected,” Nilambar said adding that we have to wait and see how much sincerely Qatar will implement these measures.

A 2013 report from the ITUC claimed that at least 1,200 migrant workers had died in the 2022 World Cup construction projects.

The migrant workers in Qatar are mainly from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who are deployed in different projects.

According to the ITCU, in the reforms, identification papers will be issued directly by the State of Qatar, and workers will no longer rely on their employer to provide their ID card without which workers can be denied medical treatment.

“Workers’ committees will be established in each workplace, with workers electing their own representatives. A special disputes resolution committee with a timeframe for dealing with grievances will be a centerpiece for ensuring rapid remedy of complaints,” the ITUC adds to its claims.

Meanwhile, Rafeek Ravuther, Director at Centre for Indian Migrants Studies (CIMS), said that implementation of reforms is the key point.

“We heard about removing exit permit in 2017 beginning. It was removed too. But later on it was brought back discreetly. So, I will wait till reforms are implemented,” Rafeek added.

(Originally published in the Firstpost, India.)

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