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Climate Talks and Workers’ Rights in Qatar

Climate Talks and Workers’ Rights in Qatar

Bob Baugh is the executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council and serves as chair of the federation’s Energy Task Force and as the liaison to the International Trade Union Confederation's (ITUC's) Climate Working Group. He is at the United Nations climate talks with the ITUC delegation.

The trade unions of the world have come to Climate of the Parties (COP) 18, the 2012 U.N. climate talks in Doha, to speak out for workers’ rights and to promote a global climate agreement. The AFL-CIO and the ITUC have worked to promote a Just Transition agenda within a new climate accord that recognizes the need for good jobs, decent work and a democratic voice for workers and communities. Decent work is a recognized set of international standards that includes the right to organize, collective bargaining and for a safe and healthy work environment.

The choice of Qatar brings the efforts of the ITUC into focus. The original announcement drew an immediate and harsh reaction by the ITUC delegation at COP 17 in Durban. At the time, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, said, “The international union movement will not accept climate change talks being held in a country which does not respect workers’ rights and is the highest emitter per capita in the world.” Challenging the Qatari government on workers’ rights would be a priority for Doha.

The disparity in Doha is startling. The glittering mini Manhattan skyline of downtown could hold the entire official Qatari citizen population of 300,000. Another 1.5 million people live here, a vast majority of them migrant workers (Arabic, Indian, Nepali, Filipino and more), “sponsored” under individual contracts whose passports are held by their employers.

The ubiquitous construction cranes tell you where many of the migrants work in indentured servitude. Nepali construction workers told ITUC delegates about appalling working conditions and an average monthly wage of $450 Riyal (approximately $125 U.S.) with additional deductions for food and housing.

When challenged last Thursday by the ITUC, the Qatar Human Rights Commission responded that the employment contracts are not their responsibility because they are an agreement between the employer and employee. Likewise, labor law here is also an oxymoron. In a country where migrant workers make up the majority of a workforce that is 93% non-Qatari, neither they nor government employees are allowed to organize.

There is talk of change and an expansion of labor rights and protections for migrant workers. Qatar is sensitive about its public image. Local press stories about the abuses of migrant home workers and similar foreign press coverage has raised the profile of the migrants. The ITUC pressed workers’ rights in meetings with the Labor Minister and the Commission. Hiding from public view are all the transnational corporations that hold all those employment contracts that also need to be held accountable. 

Our union day with migrant workers and their families ended with a labor picnic in a park below the gleaming skyscrapers. Irony yes, but there was also a sense of pride present for the work and skills that went into building those structure. We all signed a banner for workers’ rights and carried it in Saturday’s public climate march and rally as a signal to the government that the union is here to stay.

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