By Sam Ralph
Shallow changes?: The case of Qatar and the ILO
Since 2010 there has been considerable public attention surrounding the treatment of migrant workers in the small and wealthy Gulf state of Qatar. The intense media focus was a result of the controversial reaction to the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to the country. It was discovered that around 1.7 million migrant workers, mostly from the Indian subcontinent countries of Nepal, India and Pakistan, along with the Philippines, were being subjected to conditions of exploitation in Qatar, causing the deaths of at least 1,200 workers.
The exploitation of migrant workers included such abuses as the withholding of pay, the confiscation of passports, the refusal of the freedom to associate and the forcing of workers to live in cramped and unsanitary living conditions. On top of this, poor migrant workers are made to pay large recruitment fees to obtain the job in the first place, meaning that they spend much of their time working in Qatar paying back the fee, often at high interest rates. These exploitative practices are coupled with the inhospitable climate of Qatar. Overall, it is a highly exploitative system with few positive aspects for the migrant workers.
Qatar and the ILO
Migrant workers in Qatar first made a complaint to the ILO in 2014. Specifically, the charges were for non-observance of two ILO declarations (29 and 81). Declaration 29 is for the suppression of forced labour, while Declaration 81 is associated with the inspection of labour. Both of these declarations had been formerly ratified by Qatar. At the Governing Body in November 2015 the ILO voted to send a mission to Qatar to observe the condition of migrant workers in Qatar, despite the original protestations of Qatar and its allies.
The March 2016 debate at the Governing Body
The Governing Body meeting in March 2016 contained on its agenda the first report following the ILO delegation to Qatar. The chair reported that there were numerous visits to sites where migrant workers both worked and lived, and that there was a high level of cooperation and openness from the Qatari government. The ILO delegation were permitted interviews with both the migrant workers and high level members of the Qatari government. There were reported clear signs of improvement on the part of the Qatari government through the increasing in the number of labour inspectors, and the bringing in of “Law 21” to regulate the movement of migrant workers in and out of the country. However the ILO chair reported that challenges still remain in the improving the plight of migrant workers in the country.
Success of Qatari reforms
The representative for the workers in the tripartite was perhaps more critical of Qatari efforts to reform. They reported a particularly worrying case in which one worker complained to the ILO delegation that he was not given a return ticket to his home country of Nepal after the completion of his two-year contract in Qatar. The company then allowed him to continue working without giving him a formal visa. In this newly vulnerable position the worker was then not paid his wage for three months, and was also paid in cash rather than through a bank transfer. He was then sacked by the company after he spoke to the ILO, despite the Qatari government’s promise that there would be no retribution for migrant workers for talking to the ILO delegation. This can be seen as a serious violation of freedom of association. It was then reported that the company lied about the worker’s conduct to justify his sacking. According to the workers’ representative, the ILO has stepped in to make sure the man is not sacked and his outstanding pay is given.
Furthermore, the government’s improvements to workers’ accommodation have not been widespread, only affecting 200,000 out of 1.7 million foreign workers. The delegation noted that accommodation conditions at sites that the Qatari government did not personally show them round were far worse, with 10-12 workers to every room.
While the hiring of additional inspectors is a positive development, it was noted that only ten of the new inspectors had an interpreter assigned to them, meaning that they could not effectively collect evidence from the workers.
Qatar has also not done enough to stop recruitment fees being forced upon workers, considering it to be the problem of the emigrant countries. However the high recruitment fees charged by recruitment companies in the emigrant countries are a direct result of fees demanded by Qatari companies, and a refusal on the part of Qatari countries to help pay any of the costs in getting the workers to Qatar.
Many of the reforms have also had mixed results in their implementation. For instance, time companies have been using double contracts in order to evade the authorities, creating one “official” contract and one real contract for the worker which is far more exploitative. The banning of passport confiscation has yet to be meaningfully enforced, only 100 cases have been reported in 2015 despite such a large population of migrants and such a prevalence of the problem. Workers were still reporting excessive unlawful hours and inspections were still infrequent. Workers who put in a compliant were forced to travel long distances, and then often had to wait several months because their employers would not turn up to court. The worker would not be paid in this time, relying on the solidarity of his/her peers.
Debates at the ILO
After the report about the continued issues surrounding the treatment of workers in Qatar, there was then a long discussion between the ambassadors of countries regarding the wording of the ILO’s draft decision. Qatar and a plethora of allies were arguing that Qatar’s reforms and its good faith in allowing the ILO access meant that that the ILO should acknowledge these developments in the wording of its draft decision. Sudan put forward an amendment to the decision including a change that would push back the next discussion of Qatar by six months. It then even suggested that the discussion on Qatar should be closed because of the improvements of conditions in Qatar.
The insistent focus on the wording of the ILO’s draft decision by Qatar and its allies was also suggestive that Qatar is perhaps more concerned about its image than the welfare of the migrant workers themselves. The suggestion by Qatar that a report on its progress should be delayed until November 2017 would set a dangerous precedent in regards to the authority of the ILO against the interests of rich countries with powerful lobbying force.
As was decided by the Governing Body, Qatar is by no means a completed project and the issue of the exploitation of migrant workers in the country is still an extremely prevalent one. The implementation of reforms certainly does not lead to the end of exploitation. These reforms must be properly enforced by the government, and then the Qatari government must then reform its system further.
For instance, foreign workers are still not allowed to leave Qatar by law without the approval of the government and/or the employer. Furthermore, domestic workers, who are mostly female, are not covered by Qatar’s reforms to its labour laws. Many of the reforms already implemented, as has been discussed, have had mixed results in reality. This must change if Qatar is serious about changing working conditions for its migrant workforce.
The controversial awarding of the 2022 World Cup turned the spotlight onto Qatar, and the global media attention provided a crucial catalyst to force Qatar to reform its structurally exploitative labour system. The ILO must make sure that this change is permanent, and not just to appease the temporary attentions of the media and public due to the glamour of the World Cup.
Sam is originally from London, and currently studying for a MA in Globalisation and Development in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield. Sam is a policy analyst for the GLI, and is specifically interested in changing labour markets and globalised capital.