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MIDEAST > Criticism drives Qatar to draft workers code

JAMES M. DORSEY

Amid raising global concerns, Qatar starts study on a charter for foreign workers, who take part in giant construction campaign before the 2022 World Cup. The code is likely to involve improvements, but it may not satisfy demands by unions, human rights groups

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Construction cranes and bulldozers operate near Zig Zag Towers in Doha. Qatar is spending massively to modernise its capital ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
REUTERS photo

Construction cranes and bulldozers operate near Zig Zag Towers in Doha. Qatar is spending massively to modernise its capital ahead of the 2022 World Cup. REUTERS photo

Qatar, in a bid to fend off a possible move to deprive it of the right to host the 2022 World Cup because of its failure to adopt international standards for foreign workers, is currently drafting a charter for laborers involved in the construction of infrastructure related to the tournament.

The announcement of the planned charter by the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee comes amid a rare series of articles in Qatari media depicting workers’ difficulties and a call to offer relief for laborers, in part through sports.

It also follows a rare news conference in the Qatari capital Doha by Human Rights Watch, in which it was charged that the Gulf state had failed to live up to its promise to address the fundamental rights of foreign workers, as well as condemnatory statements by international trade union leaders. Foreign workers account for about a third of the population, in a country in which non-nationals also make up the majority of the population. 

‘Best practices’

“We are currently in the final stages of drafting a migrant worker charter that will be implemented on all tournament-related projects. Our aim is for this charter to be completed and in place by the end of the first quarter of 2013. We have actively sought out concrete suggestions on best practices and are evaluating how those can be accomplished,” Qatar’s state-owned al-Jazeera television network quoted a committee statement as saying.

Details of the planned charter were not immediately available. Nevertheless, while the charter is likely to involve improvements of the conditions of foreign workers, it is unlikely to satisfy demands by trade unions and human rights groups. For one, the committee’s authority does not stretch beyond issues involved in hosting the World Cup. As a result, it would only affect workers involved in World Cup-related projects, unless it was to be adopted by the Ministry of Labor. Qatar has so far moved to enforce safety, security and health standards and improve living conditions, but has stopped short of meeting demands for a lifting of its sponsorship system that makes workers dependent on their employer and deprives them of their freedom of movement and ability to freely change jobs. It has also shied away from endorsing calls for the right to form independent trade unions and engage in collective bargaining. Qatari press reports said the Cabinet had this week reviewed proposed new safety regulations for workers.

In a possible breakthrough, Labor Minister Sultan bin Hassan advised International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) secretary general Sharan Burrow last November that Qatar would not penalize workers who formed or joined an independent union. The ITUC, with 175 million members in 153 countries, has said it will put the minister’s words, which are not legally binding, to the test later this year. It has threatened to launch a boycott campaign against the World Cup if Qatar fails to meet international labor standards.

The planned charter, the improvement in material conditions and the domestic debate all illustrate that the trade unions and human rights groups have gained leverage with Qatar’s winning in December 2010 of the right to host the World Cup, and are having an impact even if the response so far fails to address the structural and fundamental issues.

1 million workers

The pressure on Qatar is in advance of an expected influx of up to 1 million additional workers in order to complete massive infrastructure projects, many of which are unrelated to the World Cup but are likely to benefit it. In addition, projections predict that construction costs in the coming years are likely to rise substantially. Nevertheless, labor issues that in the past remained unspoken of - because they either risked opening the Pandora’s Box of foreigners seeing their presence in Qatar as more than temporary, or cast the Gulf state in a bad light – are now being publicly discussed for the first time.

A series of articles in The Peninsula, a Qatari English-language newspaper, described various aspects of the lives of migrant workers, including informal self-organized money pools that constitute a rudimentary social security system for workers and the lack of entertainment and relaxation opportunities, as well as access to the Internet. Qatar University sociologist Kaltham al-Ghanim noted that unskilled foreign workers were not included in the country’s National Strategy for Social Security (2011-16). “Isolating these large sections of our population can make them vulnerable to crime. They can be a challenge to social security,” she said.

The newspaper noted that the lack of free-time opportunities had sparked the illegal sale of pirated CDs at Doha’s al-Ghanim bus station, where workers congregate on Fridays, their day off, because there are no facilities in the Industrial Zone where their camps are located. Qatar’s foremost pastime, a visit to the mall or a park, is often off limits because the conservative state seeks to limit entry to single men. To address the issue, Qatar is building in the Industrial Zone an entertainment and commercial center for foreign workers.

In a break with the past, al-Ghanim called on the country’s sports clubs to set up branches in the Industrial Zone “to channel their energy to productive avenues and hunt for sporting talent.” Sports clubs in Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf have largely targeted local nationals rather than foreigners, for fear that identification with a sports club would give them a more permanent sense of belonging.

Al-Ghanim cautioned that if foreign workers were allowed to “live on the social fringes, the danger is they would take to illegal activities and emerge as a threat to social security.” She said the need to engage them socially was enhanced by the fact that many of them were unmarried, or were in Qatar without their families.

February/18/2013

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