Qatar announces significant labour reforms for migrant workers, technical cooperation agreement with ILO; rights groups call for follow-through on implementation

On October 24 and 25, 2017 the government of Qatar announced, via its news agency, plans to establish a minimum wage for migrant workers and a “Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund” to ensure workers are paid overdue wages. One of the statements also referred to an amendment to the law governing the country’s exit permit system. No details were provided on the details of the amendment.

On the same day, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), described as a long-standing and vocal critic of Qatar’s treatment of its majority migrant workforce, issued a statement on its website hailing “the breakthrough from the Government of Qatar to end the kafala system of modern slavery” and outlining six commitments made by the Qatari government to "dismantle the system of kafala".

The details of Qatar’s proposed reforms and technical cooperation agreement with the ILO were published the next day as part of a report to the ILO Governing Body ahead of its 8 November session, when it is due to decide whether to launch a Commission of Inquiry - the agency's highest level of sanction - into complaints of forced labour against Qatar.

The agreement sets out 5 areas for action covering wage protection, labour inspection and occupational health and safety, employment contracts, forced labour and worker voice. Of note are provisions to remove restrictions on migrant workers’ ability to change employer and exit the country, introduce a non-discriminatory minimum wage, improve measures to prevent contract substitution, establish joint committees, operationalise a timely and effective dispute resolution process for worker grievances, and allow monitoring of labour practices.

In coverage published by The Guardian, ITUC’s general secretary, Sharan Burrow “will recommend that formal complaints made against Qatar be withdrawn, meaning there will be no ILO commission of inquiry”. According to the same article, ITUC will no longer request that the World Cup be moved from Qatar. In comments to AFP and HuffPost, Burrow is quoted on FIFA’s role, saying "FIFA sat on the sidelines for more than five years. They had the power to work effectively and did nothing…FIFA becomes a beneficiary but no thanks to them."

Human rights advocacy groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and who have been at the helm of campaigning for labour reform in Qatar and other countries in the Gulf, have responded to the agreement between ILO and Qatar with more caution. The overarching message is that Qatar’s new pledges must be accompanied by swift and informed action and translate into real improvements for migrant workers in the country.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has collated the announcements from the government of Qatar and ITUC below, as well as the ILO document, responses from human rights groups, and accompanying media analysis.

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23 November 2017

Joint labour panel at firms employing 30 or more workers

Author: Qatar News Agency, The Peninsula (Qatar)

...[I]n [a] decision [set out by] the Minister of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs...each establishment employing 30 or more workers...[shall form a] “joint committee”...comprising representatives of the employer and workers, and it should be noted that half of the members of the committee represent the employer, and the other half of them represent the workers...[A]ll facility workers will elect their representatives to the Joint Committee, while the employer chooses...representatives...from among...employees who are legally acting on behalf of [the company]...The term of membership of the Joint Labor Committee will be for two years...The Joint Committee shall study and discuss all issues related to the work in the establishment, including the organization of work, ways to increase production and development, improve productivity, workers’ training programs, risk prevention tools, improve the level of adherence to occupational safety and health rules, and develop the general culture for workers...[The decision also includes] provisions related to the terms of membership...and...electoral process...

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17 November 2017

Qatar sets temporary minimum wage at 750 riyals

Author: Kathmandu Post (Nepal)

Qatar, a prime destination for Nepali migrant workers, has set a temporary minimum wage for migrant workers worth around 750 riyals...a month. The minimum wage is 150 riyals less than the minimum wage proposed by the Nepal government. AFP reported that Qatar's Labour Minister Issa al-Nuaimi said that the "temporary minimum wage...will immediately come into effect", while officials work on setting a permanent rate and the figure could increase after a review...Qatar had earlier committed to set a minimum wage policy during a meeting with the UN's International Labour Organisation...[In] 2013, [Nepal] had set 900 riyals as the minimum wage and 300 riyals for fooding for the migrant workers in view of inflation in the Gulf nation and decided to send workers to only those companies who would provide the set amount. "I am very disappointed with the decision made by Qatar," said Bhakta Rai, a migrant worker who has been working in construction for the past 10 years, "Our minimum wage should at least be 1,500 riyals as we are now getting 1,200 riyals. This decision only favours the companies and Qatar and not us"...

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13 November 2017

Our companies hold the power to make sure life continues to get better for workers in Qatar

Author: Sandip Verma, (UK)

“Qatar has set a new standard for the Gulf states, and this must be followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where millions of migrant workers are trapped in modern slavery.” These are...the words...of Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation...this matters, because Qatar is a close military and economic ally of the UK. We are the country’s single largest investment destination...With so much construction currently being undertaken in the country – a lot of it with British company involvement – there are an estimated 1.8m migrant workers. Over the past couple of years, the...ILO has been investigating labour laws in Qatar. [Due to] pressure, there has been a swathe of labour law improvements, including...domestic worker rights, changes to the...Kafala system, fines on businesses for violation, the establishment of employee grievance panels, and changes to make it easier for employees to return to their home country and to switch jobs...[T]hese legal changes need to be accompanied by cultural changes and enforcement...British companies working in Qatar and with Qataris here in the UK have the power to model change...they can ensure the social responsibility that we have here towards our workers is reflected for their workforce in Qatar.

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9 November 2017

BWI welcomes ILO decision and agreement with Qatar

Author: Building and Wood Workers’ International

The Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) welcomes the decision of the...ILO to close the complaint against Qatar. BWI also welcomes the Qatar government’s commitment to seriously implement reforms that would protect workers’ rights and improve the living and working condition of migrant workers. This is an achievement of good-faith engagement, patience and persistence...BWI [is also cooperating] with the Supreme Committee  [through] a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2016 and has already conducted in five joint occupational health and safety inspections. The inspection process has resulted in concrete and immediate improvements in the health and safety measures in several stadium construction sites. It demonstrates that our common efforts with the Supreme Committee can improve the health and safety of workers on the ground, where it counts. BWI’s work with the employers in the construction industry includes a far-reaching agreement with QDVC, a Qatari joint venture with Qatari Diar Real Estate Investments Company and VINCI Construction Grands projects, and VINCI, a large French-based multinational...

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27 October 2017

Can Qatar deliver on its worker 'revolution'?

Author: AFP

On the surface it appears to deliver all that critics have long campaigned for...there remains scepticism that Qatar will really deliver true change. Mustafa Qadri, executive director of Equidem, a human rights research organisation, said the reform package was "a positive sign" but also stressed the need to wait for results. "We have heard this before in 2014 when the government came out and said it would abolish kafala and get rid of the exit permit," he told AFP. "Then what we saw was that reform was slow and there were some changes but not the abolition of kafala."

Responding to the emerging scepticism, Saif Al-Thani, the director of Qatar's Government Communications Office, tweeted that the hugely wealthy emirate would develop its labour laws in line with international standards.

There may also have been another factor at play for Doha's apparent concessions -- the ongoing Gulf crisis, which has seen Qatar boycotted by neighbouring countries. Qatar has repeatedly claimed the boycott has impacted on the human rights of its citizens, and arguably the most vocal body during the nearly five-month-old dispute has been its National Human Rights Committee. Claiming rights abuses by others, while being accused of the same thing with regards to migrant workers, is not an easy thing for Qatar to explain. By radically overhauling its treatment of migrant workers, Qatar would also distinguish itself from other states in the region and present itself as more progressive than its neighbours.

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27 October 2017

Qatar pledges on migrant workers' rights must be backed by action: rights groups

Author: Heba Kanso, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Qatar, host of the 2022 soccer World Cup, has pledged a series of labor reforms in response to criticism of its treatment of migrants workers, but the promises must be backed by new laws and concrete action, human rights groups said...genuine commitment to reform can only be proved by legislation and strict implementation of new labor laws.

“This agreement laid out the pathway for reform but Qatar has to travel that pathway,” Fabien Goa, migrant researcher for Amnesty International, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Gulf labor rights researcher Mustafa Qadri, executive director of Equidem Research & Consulting, said enforcement was crucial. “Passing laws alone don’t really change anything. What we really need to see on the ground is actual change”.

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27 October 2017

Qatar steps up efforts to protect migrant workers' rights, but activists are not celebrating just yet

Author: Rejimon K, Firstpost (India)

Gireesh Kumar, an engineer from the south Indian state of Kerala at a company in Qatar, is quite hopeful as the Qatari government is initiating wide-ranging reforms in its labour system to protect and respect migrant workers’ rights.Gireesh who joined an oil company in Qatar some two years ago was betrayed by the recruitment agent itself in India and his employer in Doha. Upon arrival in Qatar, Gireesh was given a different job contract with less salary and perks and additionally his passport was taken back by his employer restricting his travel. “I have been fighting with the employer to get back my passport for the last eight months. Additionally, I have been duped with respect to the salary,” Gireesh said.

Suresh B, an engineer from Kerala, had to give up around Rs 50 lakh unpaid salary and return. “Salaries were pending due to fund shortage. Our company bills were getting stuck in banks as the main company was running short of money. Everywhere, there is a crisis due to the oil price dip. I didn’t want to get stuck there. So, I filed a case, gave a power of attorney to a lawyer and returned,” Suresh said.

Recently, media reported that around 2,500 workers belonging to one company were left in lurch as the company failed to pay their salary for three months. Nilambar Badal, a migrants' rights activist in Nepal, said that often the come across migrant workers getting stranded in Qatar. “Passport seizure, salary delays, wage discrimination based on race, inadequate accommodation, lack of health insurance coverage….the list of exploitation is endless. Hopeful that Qatar sticks to its new reform package and workers’ rights get protected,” Nilambar said adding that we have to wait and see how much sincerely Qatar will implement these measures...Rafeek Ravuther, Director at Centre for Indian Migrants Studies (CIMS), said that implementation of reforms is the key point. “We heard about removing exit permit in 2017 beginning. It was removed too. But later on it was brought back discreetly. So, I will wait till reforms are implemented,” Rafeek added.

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27 October 2017

Qatar: Implementation will be key for labor reforms; measures could be pathbreaking for region but fall short of full kafala repeal

Author: Human Rights Watch (HRW)

The Qatari government’s newly announced labor reforms are a step in the right direction, but their implementation will be the decisive factor, Human Rights Watch said today...[The reforms] are outlined in an ILO document where Qatar expressed a commitment to the ILO to institute a minimum wage, allow the monitoring of labor practices by independent experts, and reform the kafala (sponsorship) system that can prevent migrant workers from fleeing abusive employers.

These measures would be pathbreaking for Gulf countries where migrants make up most of the labor force, but the announcement gives little detail on how laws will be amended, how the changes will be carried out, or the timeframe for their implementation, Human Rights Watch said.

“Qatar’s commitments to the ILO are steps in the right direction to protect migrant worker rights, but the authorities need to get much more specific and put reforms in place without delay,” [Sarah Lea] Whitson,  [Middle East director at Human Rights Watch] said.

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27 October 2017

Technical cooperation between ILO and Qatar on workers rights; threat of Commission of Inquiry eases


Qatar and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) are set to enter into a three-year programme of Technical Cooperation to carry out extensive labour reforms.

The details of the cooperation were published on October 26, 2017, the day the ILO Governing Body commenced its 331st session. On November 8, a plenary session will follow up on complaints concerning Qatar’s non-observance of the Forced Labour Convention and the Labour Inspection Convention, and determine if a Commision of Inquiry will be launched...Interestingly, there is no mention of freedom of association, which has been stressed in previous reports by trade unions working with the ILO.

...This is not the first time that Qatar has made headline-grabbing announcements promising extensive labour reform but fallen short on delivery. In May 2014, Qatar announced plans to end the  Kafala system, and but the reforms came into effect only in December 2015, and did not meet the promises made at the start.But the Technical Cooperation is a promising move and one that might result in the abolition of the worst provisions of the Kafala. welcomes this move.

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26 October 2017

Activists and Gulf crisis turn Qatar into potential model of social change

Author: James M. Dorsey

Potential Qatari moves to become the first Gulf state to effectively abolish the region’s onerous kafala or labour sponsorship system, denounced as a form of modern slavery, could produce a rare World Cup that leaves a true legacy of social and economic change.

In a rare kudo, Qatar’s fiercest labour critic, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), hailed a Qatari announcement that it was introducing far-reaching reforms as a “breakthrough.”...The timing of the promised reforms was however likely determined by Qatar’s need to fend off being penalized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as well as the almost five month-old Gulf crisis that pits the Gulf state against an alliance led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia....It potentially would position the 2022 World Cup as a rare mega-sporting event to have served as a catalyst of change. That would be a legacy that international sporting associations aspire to through major tournaments, but seldom achieve.

Former Human Rights Watch Gulf expert Nicholas McGeehan noted that Qatar’s road towards labour reform has been littered with promises that were either partially kept or not fulfilled at all. “All we have today are promises, and promises have been broken before. I feel we need to put expressions of optimism on hold until we see full details, changes in the law where necessary, and a time frame for promised reforms to be implemented,” Mr. McGeehan said.

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