Have We Won?

Arsenal and Spurs fans celebrate a joint win

Qatar agrees to key campaign demands

After years of campaigning, in which Playfair Qatar and its supporters played their part, Qatar appears to have done the right thing. In a potentially ground-breaking deal, the Government of Qatar has agreed wide-ranging reforms of its reviled kafala system – indeed, almost four years after they promised its abolition, it seems kafala’s time is finally over.

The reforms include measures to end the worst abuses in the country. A minimum wage will end the race-based system of payments that discriminated against workers from poorer countries. Crucially, employers will lose control over their employees’ right to leave the country, removing a much-abused power over workers’ lives. The government will also register all contracts to prevent the scam where workers are duped into low-skill, low pay jobs by employers offering them something better and then switching contracts on arrival.

With these abuses dealt with, serious progress on making Qatar’s construction sites safer can be made.

We have no doubt that the current regional dispute tipped the balance here, but our pressure made this decision possible. Keeping workers’ rights so firmly in the spotlight made it the most obvious monkey for Qatar to shake off its back. Now countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, having used this issues in their own propaganda war, need to take a long, hard look at their own labour laws.

This time last year, the BWI – the global construction union federation – made a deal that showed the Qataris that the international unions were a potential ally, not a threat. Although there is so much more still to do, BWI inspections of stadium sites helped raise the standards and increase local understanding of international practice; conditions away from World Cup stadia sometimes remain in need of urgent intervention.

Thank You

“[Our] conditions have been met, and we congratulate the Emir and Qatar’s Labour Minister for their commitment to modernise their industrial relations system,” Sharan Burrow, ITUC

The international coalition of campaigns – including the hard-hitting work of the ITUC in public and its less obvious negotiating behind the scenes, but also the excellent research from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and an array of Guardian journalists – appears to have succeeded in the unlikeliest of missions. Qatar, with one of the most rotten human rights records in the world, has suddenly signed up to a series of reforms that will elevate rights for workers above all its regional rivals.

Through Playfair Qatar, you have done your bit to support the ITUC’s efforts. What is clear from this deal is just how much the constant pressure over conditions for workers, especially in the context of the World Cup, was hurting Qatar. It wanted its moment of footballing glory to burnish its standing in the world, not burn it down. Campaigns like Playfair Qatar, and others around the world, firmly establishing a connection between the 2022 FIFA World Cup and modern slavery, made it absolutely clear that they wouldn’t get the glory unless they made concessions.

Assessment

It’s not Utopia, but it may no longer be purgatory for workers.

In the fight to fix the abuses of human rights, Qatar’s biggest problem was its inability to open up. The control freakery of the government made it insensate to the wisdom of working with international partners. As well as the legal changes that could protect workers, it is the potential for openness that brings the greatest cause for optimism. A dedicated International Labour Organisation (ILO) office in a country that tried to block a high-level ILO mission just last year is a major step forward. So too is a legal tweak that will make it perfectly acceptable for companies to make deals with global union federations, and there’s a promise of worker committees – including elected reps – in every workplace, too. Qatar’s workers may not have the full freedom to organise their own unions – yet – but they will, for the first time, be able to access union support and advice, and we should expect to see campaigning shifting to putting pressure on firms profiting from Qatar’s construction frenzy to make such deals with global unions.

It was always in Qatar’s interests to do this: it’s taken them too long to see it for themselves, but the shift is welcome. To make (yet) another Schrödinger’s Qatar joke, until we observe their compliance or otherwise they are simultaneously doing the right thing and spinning us a line, but the scale of the promises is so great it’s hard to see them wriggling out of them this time even if they wanted to. Enlightened self-interest was always going to be the only way to get real change. Qatar’s self-interest was never in doubt; it is, perhaps, at last enlightened.

What Now?

We think that Qatar means it this time; the fact that we have to say “this time” is why we won’t be going away just yet. There are almost 2 million foreign workers in Qatar who still don’t have the right to join a union, and are reliant on international pressure to get access to their own human rights. But – again assuming the promises are kept – what’s different now is that we will be able to urge the Government of Qatar to do better, and not simply demand it stops being the worst. It might seem like a small distinction, but it has the potential to be the start of something huge.

Those Promises (via the ITUC)

  • Employment contracts will be lodged with a government authority to prevent contract substitution, ending the practice of workers arriving in the country only to have their contract torn up and replaced with a different job, often on a lower wage.
  • Employers will no longer be able to stop their employees from leaving the country.
  • A minimum wage will be prescribed as a base rate covering all workers, ending the race-based system of wages.
  • Identification papers will be issued directly by the State of Qatar, and workers will no longer rely on their employer to provide their ID card without which workers can be denied medical treatment.
  • Workers’ committees will be established in each workplace, with workers electing their own representatives.
  • A special disputes resolution committee with a timeframe for dealing with grievances will be a centerpiece for ensuring rapid remedy of complaints.

Playfair Qatar Update

Migrant workers building facilities for the Qatar World Cup. Photo ITUC/Matilde Gattoni

Qatar remains under pressure for failing to take urgent and decisive action to prevent death, injury and forced labour affecting thousands of people travelling to the country to work on the infrastructure crucial to deliver the 2022 World Cup.

After years of campaigning by trade unions and other human rights organisations, over the winter Qatar brought in a new labour law which it claimed would abolish the restrictive kafala law – kafala, or sponsorship, is the system blamed for the appalling lack of rights enjoyed by migrant workers in the country, as it gave their bosses so much power over them that it was ownership in all but name.

Sadly, so far the new law appears to do little to protect workers.

Qatar fails first test

Amnesty International denounced the new law as doing nothing more that “scratch the surface” of the country’s labour problems. The ITUC called them “new labels on old laws”. At the heart of the problems lay the fact that employers could still prevent workers changing jobs for up to five years, and that it still gave them the power to block their employees’ departure from Qatar.

The slow-moving but authoritative International Labour Organisation, the UN agency dedicated to setting international labour standards and reviewing countries’ efforts to implement them, were equally unimpressed. Having given Qatar until this March to take serious steps to eliminate the forced labour made possible by kafala, its only concession to Law 21 was to give the Qataris more time to prove themselves.  In short, the ILO is not yet satisfied that Qatar has done what it promised.

Focus on the Few

The best news of recent months was that the international construction union, BWI, had negotiated access to official world cup projects to assess health and safety, as well as judging the effectiveness of worker committees set up by Qatar to give workers on these projects the opportunity to raise concerns.

Meanwhile, an independent consultancy employed by Qatar World Cup “supreme committee” found some progress on these projects but also a raft of abuses that right required urgent attention, with workers on 18-hour days and others working five months without a single day off. This is despite the fact that world cup projects are supposed to be governed by a much higher standard of labour conditions (the workers’ welfare standard) than general construction in Qatar.

Although Impactt’s investigation and advice on fixing problems will hopefully mean the issues are addressed, it is sobering to note that the deal with the BWI and the Impactt monitoring cover less than 1% of all foreign workers in Qatar, hundreds of thousands of whom are building projects vital for the world cup.

Where is FIFA?

Meanwhile FIFA, who sparked this crisis when they neglected to consider basic human rights when awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, convened its independent Human Rights Advisory Board for the first time in March, and included detailed discussions on the potential for human rights clauses in the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup. In a bland and carefully worded statement, the committee notes that it was “essential to address the many critical issues that need further attention and effort,” while also welcoming “examples of positive action that FIFA is taking.”

FIFA have their annual Congress coming up in May, with new opportunities to press them over what they are doing to stop the human rights disaster for the 2022 tournament.