Amnesty International: Qatar failing to enforce its labor laws

Human rights group's investigation alleges migrants are exploited through low pay and squalid working conditions

Migrant workers take a break in Qatar.
Azad Essa for Al Jazeera

Amnesty International, with its new report on labor conditions in Qatar, is not the first group to accuse the emirate of failing to protect workers’ rights. But the report released Sunday offers a more detailed account of conditions that some have called abusive.

Amnesty International said many of the approximately 1.4 million migrant workers helping build infrastructure in Qatar’s booming economy are being denied such basic rights as adequate pay, comfortable sleeping quarters and the ability to change employers or even leave the country. Qatari authorities promised, after allegations over labor conditions were published last month, to assign more inspectors to ensure that international standards are observed. Qatar appointed an international law firm to investigate allegations of forced labor.

But critics say little has changed despite these undertakings.

Labor conditions in Qatar have been in the international spotlight since the country was tapped two years ago to host soccer’s 2022 FIFA World Cup — an endeavor that will require the construction of new stadiums and supporting infrastructure at a cost of approximately $220 billion. Construction projects include everything from a new airport to hotels capable of accommodating some 90,000 tourists expected to visit during the tournament. And that building boom has brought a rapid influx of migrant workers, particularly from South and Southeast Asia. Such migrants make up 94 percent of the country’s workforce, according to Amnesty International.

The influx of migrant workers and concerns raised in media reports have prompted several rights groups and the United Nations to call on Doha to radically change the legal structure under which foreigners in Qatar live. And while Qatar has acknowledged some of the problems and promised to address them, the new Amnesty report suggests little has changed on the ground thus far.

“The government states in meetings with us and publicly that it wants to protect workers, (and) there are some laws in place that should protect workers, but the fact is that those laws are not properly enforced by the government,” said a video statement from James Lynch, a researcher with Amnesty International. “The government can talk about protecting workers, but we need to see action, and that means reform and enforcement of laws.”

Amnesty’s report suggests migrants are made more vulnerable by Qatar’s “kefala” system, which requires that workers be sponsored by their employers in order to stay in the country. It leaves them facing deportation if they leave the employ of their sponsor.

Foreign workers are not allowed to unionize, making it hard for them to protest their employment conditions. The report also argues that the worker protections that exist are routinely flouted by private employers amid lax government enforcement.

In interviews with about 300 workers in Qatar, the human-rights group heard claims that before they arrived in the country, many migrants had been promised higher wages than they were paid once on the job. Migrant laborers in Qatar often make less than $200 a month.

The report also alleged that workers are frequently housed in substandard conditions, with several bunk beds crammed into each room of sprawling worker camps — a practice the Qatari government says is illegal.

International organizations have accused Qatari authorities of downplaying the extent of the problem. After the release of a critical report on labor conditions in the emirate from the Building and Wood Workers International last month, Qatar’s undersecretary of the Ministry of Labor, Hussain al-Mulla, said that “companies are complying with (Qatari labor) law ... (I) cannot say 100 percent, but at least 99 percent of businesses are … Once any complaint is raised by a worker, the laws governing the issue are put to application. The law is fully enforced.”

Pressure over labor conditions in Qatar is directed not only at Doha but also at FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. After a September investigation by The Guardian into the deaths of Nepalese migrants working in the emirate, FIFA — like the Qatari government — promised to investigate, but critics suggest that nothing has been done so far.

“FIFA holds a very important power, and that is to award one of the world’s most significant sporting events,” said Tim Noonan, the director of campaigns for the International Trade Union Confederation. “FIFA has to give a very strong message to Qatar ... Its brand and reputation are at stake.”

Qatar’s labor practices seem less controversial among Qataris. For example, a Qatar University survey cited by the New York Times found that 90 percent of Qatari citizens favored the “kefala” sponsorship system. But with half a million more migrant workers expected to enter the country in the next year, international rights organizations are likely to keep a spotlight on Qatar’s labor conditions.

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