Policy Brief: The response of the International Labour Organisation Governing Body to a complaint alleging non-observance by Qatar of the Forced Labour Convention and the Labour inspection Convention:
The issue under consideration:
At the 103rd Session of the International Labour Conference in June 2014, twelve delegates from Belgium, Libya, Jordon, Morocco, Sweden, UK, Denmark, France, Canada, Kenya, Pakistan and Tunisia submitted a complaint, under article 26 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) constitution, to the Director General, against the government of Qatar. The complaint alleged that Qatar has violated, in its treatment of migrant workers, ILO conventions 29 and 81, pertaining to the issues of Forced Labour and Labour Inspection respectively.
The complaint was aired at the International Labour Conference, in order to notify both Qatar and other ILO members of the issue, before being officially put to the ILO at the 321st Governing Body meeting later the same month. In response, Governing Body officers investigated the complaint and prepared a report on the matter for the Body’s next meeting in November 2014. At this, the 322nd meeting, the Body’s members requested that the complaint be transmitted by the Director General to the Government of Qatar, and that the ILO obtain any relevant information needed to fully investigate the complaint from both the government of Qatar and also employers and workers groups within the country. The issue was then placed on the agenda for the 323rd session, in order to decide if any further action was required in light of the information found by the office and provided from Qatar.
Action taken between the 322nd and 323rd Governing Body Meetings:
On the 26th of January 2015, the Governing Body received information from several Qatari government departments regarding the steps they have taken and continue to take to address the concerns raised by the ILO concerning forced labour and the absence of effective labour inspection. In addition, a high level Governing Body delegation visited Qatar at the start of February 2015 to gain further information. Headed by Cleopatra Dombia-Henry, Director of the International Labour Standards Department, the delegation had several meetings with Qatari officials.
The information provided by Qatar, coupled with the investigations of Governing Body officials led them to forward a draft decision on the issue, which was the subject of the debate of the 323rd session. This draft decision proposed that a high-level tripartite mission be sent by the Governing Body to Qatar in order to gain more detailed information and report back to the 324th meeting in June.
Discussions in the March 2015 meeting:
Qatar opened deliberations in the Governing Body on the draft decision by claiming that it has taken every effort to conform to ILO conventions. It pointed to amendments made in its labour laws to allow payments to be made directly to workers and not their employers, as well as an increased number of labour law inspectors in the country, rising from 150 to 294 in recent months. It described changes in its complaints procedures, which have provided more avenues to allow workers to seek justice, and the creation of a new government department for ‘Occupational Safety and Health’ to ensure better working conditions. Given its efforts to conform to international labour laws, Qatar asked that the high-level mission proposed be removed from the agenda.
Whilst acknowledging the progress made by Qatar towards ending forced labour and increasing inspections, the Employers group, speaking next, argued that a high-level mission should be sent. They supported the draft proposal but suggested such an investigation should not commence until after the June Governing Body meeting in order to give Qatar time to implement further reforms. The Workers group also called for the draft decision to be adopted, but suggested that it should be adopted as soon as possible. Their speaker, Mr Luc Cortebeeck, criticised the policies of Qatar and its treatment of workers, stating that its action so far “doesn’t come close to meeting its obligations under conventions 21 and 89”. The group therefore strongly supported the draft decision, describing the deployment of a high-level panel to report in June as “the very least that can be done” by the ILO.
These calls by the workers and employers groups for the adoption of the resolution were countered by many countries and regional bodies however. China, on behalf of ASPAC, commended Qatar’s recent efforts to protect workers and abide by Conventions 29 and 81 and argued that the country would need more time to implement changes than a high-level panel would allow if authorised at this stage. China therefore argued for the removal of the draft decision from the agenda. Countries including Sudan, Bahrain, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Pakistan and Iran argued against the creation of an investigative panel, many claiming that Qatar’s recent efforts to address workers’ rights and conditions reflect a clear commitment to aligning with ILO conventions 29 and 81. The United Arab Emirates and Jordan also suggested that given a high level delegation was sent to Qatar in February 2015, another so soon would be unproductive and unnecessary.
Arguing for the adoption of the draft resolution were America, Canada, Russia, Norway and the Netherlands, speaking on behalf of several other EU member states. All argued that Qatar has displayed a disregard for the fundamental rights of workers enshrined in the ILO’s constitution and requires further investigation so as to fully determine the truthfulness of its claims to have implemented reforms. These arguments were echoed by the Workers group, whose representative spoke at the end of discussions to re-emphasise what they saw as serious violations of rights by Qatar and the need for further investigation.
On the basis of this discussion, the Governing Body decided to defer the decision on the draft proposal – that of sending a high-level panel to investigate the situation in Qatar – until its 325th session in November. In the meantime, it decided to request that the Government of Qatar submit information to the 325th session concerning its compliance with the ILO’s conventions on Forced Labour and Labour Inspection.
Whether this step will be sufficient to motivate further reforms by Qatar is as yet unclear. It is certainly the opinion of many ILO member countries that Qatar has already begun sufficient steps towards improving conditions and the rights of its workers and that by the 325th meeting in November many of these steps will have had real effects. However some, including the Workers Group within the Governing Body, believe that Qatar has shown few efforts prior to the last six months to take steps to genuinely improve the lives of its migrant workers.
By choosing to defer the move to send an investigative mission to Qatar, the Governing Body lacks a reliable way of knowing whether Qatar is truly instigating meaningful change. Whilst the panel that visited Qatar in February expressed satisfaction with some of Qatar’s changes, notably to processes of recruiting foreign workers and methods of paying them, there remain uncertainties about its progress. In Qatar’s responses to ILO concerns this year, there have been notably few voices and perspectives from actual labourers and working groups in the country, with reports of progress coming almost exclusively from employers and government officials. If Qatar submits information similarly dominated by government and employer perspectives to the 325th session, it seems likely that uncertainty will remain.
It is worth noting, in the meantime, the potential role of the ILO in providing technical assistance to Qatar to assist its changes in labour laws and inspection. This possibility was mentioned by Qatar and may represent a way for the ILO to speed up the changes Qatar makes, ensure they are effective and enable observation of Qatar’s progress between now and November.