UN urges labor reform in Qatar

Official calls for minimum wage and an end to workers needing employers' approval to leave the country

Workers are entitled to 43 square feet of personal space each, according to guidelines issued by Qatar's National Human Rights Committee, but in many cases live in cramped quarters.
Azad Essa for Al Jazeera

Qatar should allow workers to unionize, abolish the "kafala" system — which binds workers to their employers — adopt legislation to protect labor rights and properly enforce existing legislation, said the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.

Francois Crepeau said on Sunday that there were some positive developments on migrant workers' rights in Qatar, but published a list of 15 recommendations for the country, which has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world.

Migrant workers represent 88 percent of Qatar's population and have become a focal point as the country undertakes ambitious development projects and gears up to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

The vast majority of the workers come from South and East Asia.

Crepeau's assessment also comes in the wake of an investigative report by the Guardian in September that said 44 Nepalese migrant workers had perished on the job, many from heart attacks in the Gulf country's sweltering heat or as a result of accidents.

Crepeau slammed the practice of detaining workers who run away from their employers and demanded better conditions of detention.

In a written statement, he also cited cases of "several women who were sentenced to one year in prison for committing 'adultery'" for having a baby while being unmarried. These women thus live in the prison with their babies — which Crepeau described as a clear violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Qatar is a party.

Crepeau also criticized migrant workers' living conditions, referring to labor camps that he visited in Doha's Industrial Area as "slums" and a "stain in the reputation of Qatar."

"The dwellings I have visited do not conform to Qatari legislation," he told Al Jazeera.

"I saw bunk beds, which are prohibited. I saw overcrowding. I saw very shoddy construction of these camps. One place in particular had no kitchens ... the latrines are, let's say, minimal. Access to water was problematic at times."

He also called for the establishment of a minimum wage, a more robust labor inspection system, and the abolishment of the kafala system.

The kafala system binds workers to a single employer and forbids them from changing jobs or obtaining an exit visa without their sponsor's permission.

The Qatari Chamber, a business association, has defended the kafala system, saying it prevents the loss of skilled workers and the flight of foreigners who still owe debts in Qatar

"Moreover, an employer brings a worker from overseas, provides him hands-on training to do a specific job and makes him skillful, so he has the right to retain him," said Vice Chairman of the Chamber Mohamed bin Ahmed Tawar Al Kuwari, according to The Penninsula

Kuwari said an exit permit is "merely a clearance" to leave the country. 

Qatari leaders respond

Crepeau made his assessment after finishing an eight-day visit to Qatar to investigate migrants' working conditions.

Crepeau's trip follows a fact-finding visit to Qatar in October by a delegation from the Building and Wood Workers' International, a federation of labor unions, which found what it termed "disturbing evidence" of migrant workers' maltreatment.

During Crepeau's visit, he met with government officials, migrant workers, academics and Qatar's National Human Rights Committee.

He praised Qatari authorities for allowing him to "visit every place I wanted to visit," lauded the ongoing discussion of a draft law on domestic workers, and said he welcomed the government's blacklisting of companies that abuse migrant workers.

But he said Qatar's labor laws "still lack implementation on the ground," noting that many employers confiscate their workers' passports despite a 2009 law that prohibits them from doing so.

Qatar's Labor Ministry did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera's requests for comment.

But Qatar Labor Ministry under secretary Hussein al-Mulla in April said that labor rights are improving consistently in the country, according to The New York Times. 

"Seven, eight years ago we didn't have labor laws. It is better now than before. It will be better in the future," Muilla said

According to the Times, citing a survey by Qatar University, 90 percent of Qataris support the kafala system, with 30 percent saying they want it strenghtened. About 95 percent of Qatari households have at least one housekeeper, the Times reported.

But the recent controversy centers around laborers working to build constructions for the World Cup. 

The managing director of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, Sheikh Mohamed bin Hamad al-Thani told the Gulf Times that the media should come and see the progress Qatar has made since winning the bid for the international soccer tournament in 2010.

"The fact is Qatar existed for long before 2010 and our commitment to improve the living standards of the workers won't go away after the World Cup in 2022," Sheikh Mohamed said.  

"Both governmental and non-governmental agencies are working hard to ensure that workers are treated well." 

According to Doha News, an Amnesty International report on labor conditions in Qatar is due out next week. 

Al Jazeera

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