After over a year of anticipation, the government of Qatar last week unveiled its highly touted labor law reforms. While labor rights activists had hoped the reforms might begin to address the widespread abuse of migrant workers and the prevalence of forced labor in Qatar’s massive infrastructure projects, not surprisingly, they fell far short of bringing the labor code in line with international norms. As Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup, and 700,000 more migrant workers have been recruited to develop the country at breakneck speed, the lives of thousands of workers could be on the line.
As has been widely reported, the labor rights situation in Qatar is dire. Migrants are recruited into the regressive kafala visa system, creating contracts akin to indentured servitude between the migrant workers and their employers. Under the kafala system, workers have no trade-union rights, remain trapped in jobs for which they have likely paid high fees, must receive an exit permit from their employer to leave the country, and have little access to grievance procedures. These conditions make workers particularly vulnerable to conditions of forced labor. In preparation for the World Cup, Qatar, a country of 250,000, has recruited approximately 90% of its workforce, some 1.4 million workers, from abroad. The relentless pressure to develop regardless of the human cost puts working people at risk.
Unfortunately, the new labor laws do not abolish the notorious exit permits, and workers still have to get their employers’ permission to leave the country. Workers will supposedly be able to appeal to the Interior Ministry, but most workers live in fear of that ministry. Migrant workers do not have the right to join a union or have a collective voice with elected workplace and representative committees. Domestic workers continue to remain wholly excluded from the labor laws. One nominal improvement gives workers the ability to transfer jobs at the end of a contract; however, employers can still elect to recruit into five-year contracts—hardly a speedy exit from an abusive employer.
Access to the labor camps and millions of workers has become increasingly restricted as the government seeks to cover up its mistreatment of workers. Police presence has increased in industrial areas, and journalists were arrested in May for attempting to report on labor camp conditions. Despite the obstacles, the International Trade Union Confederation has obtained undercover footage and produced a new multimedia investigation that includes interviews of workers in Qatar, scenes from the labor camps and stories of workers who have returned to Nepal.
“International companies doing business in Qatar can no longer be lured by Qatar’s promises of reform,” ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said. “The threat to the reputation of international companies … has increased with the government’s sham reforms.”
The discrimination, racism and denial of rights in Qatar add up to apartheid and a model of employment centered on forced labor. Superficial changes to the kafala system do not address the restrictions on basic worker rights that lead to such widespread exploitation. Governments, corporations, and major sporting and cultural institutions that continue to do business in Qatar are complicit in the abuse. The international community must express disappointment at this missed opportunity for change and continue to demand real reform, which must include the freedom of movement and the freedom of association.