Last week a United Nations Human Rights Council panel reviewed Qatar’s human rights record since 2010. Delegates expressed concern over alleged labor rights abuses in the country, primarily in light of construction for World Cup 2022. While many commentators have cited the Qatari government’s responsibility for labor-related abuses — which, according to a Guardian report, has resulted in over 500 deaths of Indian migrant workers since 2012 — few media outlets mention the importance of corporate responsibility.
Though abuses against migrant workers are rampant in the region, human rights organizations reported little on Qatar until the onset of World Cup construction. As Qatar attempted to simultaneously execute large-scale stadium construction projects, reports of labor abuses against migrant workers on these projects began to surface widely in the global media. The allegations about poor working conditions and nonpayment of workers are mostly a result of multinational construction contractors’ and subcontractors’ flagrant disregard of labor rights. There are even disputes between contractors and subcontractors over responsibility for migrant workers’ conditions. Recently, Krantz Engineering, a company subcontracted by SEG International, a Beirut-based contractor, failed to pay migrant construction workers their wages and withheld worker exit visas. Krantz blamed these abuses on SEG for withholding payments from Krantz. After being contacted by Amnesty International, SEG claimed to have opened a line of credit to Krantz to pay wages, but SEG failed to show proof of that transaction. What started as commercial dispute between two companies resulted in a situation akin to forced labor for migrant construction workers. The lack of corporate responsibility is alarming, to say the least, and highlights the corporate ethos about migrant workers’ conditions in the region.
To be sure, the Qatari government still shares responsibility for monitoring and reprimanding corporations for labor abuses. One simple yet effective reform is the creation of rigorous standards during the bidding process for construction projects. Rather than awarding construction projects to the lowest bidder, Qatar should take into account proposals specifying labor costs, past corporate disputes and ethical hiring practices. Such standards would encourage corporations to change current practices and reward companies that promote fair treatment of migrant workers, such as FSI Worldwide. A labor agency based in the region, FSI is unique not only because it promotes ethical working conditions as part of its corporate culture but also because it runs investigations of its clients to ensure that migrant workers hired through the agency are not being mistreated. Another practical step for Qatar would be to create a government auditing body to investigate and enforce labor standards, modeled after other countries’ labor departments.
In addition to encouraging corporate responsibility, Qatar will need an overhaul of its labor laws and enforcement of those laws to ensure that corporations are held accountable for transgressions. One such suggestion came from the U.N.’s Human Rights Council last week, urging Qatar to scrap its migrant worker sponsorship system, known as the kafala system. The system is used widely in the Middle East to regulate migrant workers and has been criticized by the media and activists worldwide for contributing to migrant exploitation. Critics of the kafala system point to the inability of a migrant worker to leave his host country without an employer-sponsored exit visa; in Qatar this opens up the possibility of forced labor.
To its credit, Qatar seems to be listening and appears open to labor reforms. By contrast, the United Arab Emirates, which has been equally plagued by labor abuse allegations, has done little to address them and has on numerous occasions barred Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International staffers from entering the country. The Qatar Foundation has established a hotline for migrant workers to report grievances. After the U.N.’s review, Qatar’s assistant foreign minister, Sheik Mohammed bin Jassim al-Thani announced, “[Qatar] will come, I think, very soon, within the current month, with an overall work program.”
While these steps are encouraging, further labor reform and, most important, enforcement of labor laws need to take place in order to ensure that companies in Qatar bear their share of responsibility. The exploitation of migrant workers by corporations in Qatar is nothing new. It is an issue that plagues the entire Middle East. Fortunately, the situation is not a zero-sum game. By promoting corporate responsibility and increasing government scrutiny, Qatar can improve labor conditions for migrant workers in a manner that is both ethical and in the long term beneficial for all parties.