December 13, 2016 Stephen Russell

Actions speak louder than laws

Qatar’s new labour laws will not end abuse, warns Amnesty, and FIFA must act to force real change.

Hot on the heels of the deal between Qatar’s World Cup Supreme Committee and the international construction unions to allow the latter to keep an eye on workers building World Cup stadiums, comes the long-awaited centre piece of Qatar labour reform: Law 21, sometimes known as the abolition of the hated kafala sponsorship system and the country’s key defence in refuting allegations that it has been allowing the practice of forced labour in contravention of international standards and fundamental human rights.

With the International Labour Organisation (ILO) regularly criticising the country and giving it a 2017 deadline to show progress in eradicating modern slavery, Qatar had little choice but to take action. The abolition of kafala would go some way to doing that, and move the country from an outmoded system of employer “sponsorship” (one step removed from ownership) and to a modern system based on contract law.

However, as the law has evolved, concerns have been growing that for all the grand claims of reform, Law 21 might prove to be little more than a veneer to present the country’s labour laws in a better light, and provide little of real substance to transform the difficult lives of migrant workers and protect those at greatest risk of abuse.

Now an Amnesty International study has looked at what we know about the new law, and what it does to address the major concerns over the treatment of Qatar’s migrant workforce – that they’re trapped in the country and can’t change jobs, which leaves them vulnerable to squalid housing, low pay, dangerous working conditions and other serious abuses.

Amnesty’s analysis blows huge holes in Qatar’s claim that “Law No. 21 is a sweeping, significant reform.” On all the most serious abuses – in particular the exit visa which, despite promises to the contrary, is still very much part of Qatari law – Law 21 rearranges the furniture a bit but leaves workers vulnerable to abuse.

There may be good intentions at work, but they’re vague enough to allow the worst employers to continue the culture of control that puts workers in a powerless position.  For months, campaigners have been trying to get clarity on the Law 21 criteria under which employers could veto their workers leaving Qatar.

Amnesty’s assessment sheds some light on it, but they fail to find the clear regulations that would reassure workers seeking to leave. Instead, the Government has said:

“Valid objections may include: a) reason to believe that the employee has committed fraud b) reason to believe that the worker is attempting to evade prosecution for a crime.”

As the study notes, this is a problem on two fronts: firstly, the use of the word “may” allows the authorities to accept any other excuses they feel in the mood to accept and secondly, it ignores the long history of employers in Qatar slinging mud at their workers to keep them in line. The UN Special Rapporteur’s report of 2014 noted that “often, when a migrant reports abuse by their sponsor, the sponsor retaliates by filing criminal charges against him or her.”

So not only might we find other reasons being considered valid to remove the basic human right for workers to leave, but nothing in the law protects workers from vexatious claims of wrong-doing, long used by bad Qatari employers to keep workers in line. As the ILO discussed in 2015, even workers registering official complaints in the labour courts could find themselves arrested for “absconding” (leaving employment without permission) or worse offences, with “insufficient cross-referencing by the authorities” to link the accusation with the attempt to lodge a complaint.

Elsewhere we find examples of progress undermined by the small print. Until Law 21, confiscation of passports was totally illegal under Qatari law and punishable by large fines – unfortunately, despite almost 90% of low paid workers reporting their passports being retained, no employers were ever prosecuted. Now the fines have gone up, but Law 21 brings in wiggle room: with written permission from the worker, the employer may place the passport in safekeeping. Given the continuing power imbalance, the chance of every piece of written permission being supplied voluntarily seems remote.

What the law clearly does not do is change the fundamental power dynamic to allow workers to escape abusive employment. As Amnesty notes, Qatars’ laws already allow them to block exit for those suspected of criminal activity or financial misbehaviour – the application of a default position of suspicion for all foreign workers is a bizarre and unnecessary collective punishment.

“Some migrant workers have told Amnesty International that they expect their lives to significantly improve after the new law comes into force. Their expectations seem unlikely to be realised.”

Instead, it looks again as if Qatar may be playing a PR game, which means ongoing abuse will be compounded by the crushing of the optimism of those hoping for better times. “Some migrant workers have told Amnesty International that they expect their lives to significantly improve after the new law comes into force. Their expectations seem unlikely to be realised,” warns the report.

The timing is also concerning. We’d like to have more faith, but with the ILO Governing Body due to examine Qatar’s progress in March, we foresee that “give us a chance, we only brought in the laws in December” will be used as an excuse for a lot of failures, and then arguments that they should be given another full year to show their effectiveness.

None of this means that the people who drafted the laws, and significant sections of the Government of Qatar, don’t intend for them to improve conditions for workers. Unfortunately it does suggest that, in order to get these laws past opponents whose interests were more closely aligned with the status quo, they have been drafted in such a way that the existence of the laws, in themselves, is no guarantee of minor improvements, let alone of genuine human rights. Rather than the fundamental rights migrant workers need to protect them, those workers will be at the whim of employers and officials; some sympathetic, some not, and with unions banned there’s no one else to take the workers’ side.

Fans of Qatar – yes, there’re people who spend their time on social media defending an unelected regime with a serious human rights problem and pronouncing that Qatar 2022 will be the best of all possible World Cups; don’t ask us why – will decry our lack of faith. But that lack of faith is directed specifically at these laws based on Qatar’s track record of implementation. I’m afraid to say it’s not unreasonable position.

We agree with Amnesty that: “Qatar’s government, its international partners, and institutions with global influence such as football’s world governing body FIFA and its sponsors, cannot and must not use this new law to claim that Qatar’s migrant labour problem has been solved.” Actions speak louder than laws.

What we remain at least a little excited about is the breakthrough last month by the BWI, the international construction union federation, to establish oversight of conditions for workers directly involved in stadium projects and to give the BWI access to speak to those workers. What Qatar needs is not new laws, but the willingness to open itself up to external, independent scrutiny and to allow the power balance between employers and workers to shift markedly towards the latter. We’ll put our faith in that.