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Qatar: Promises, Little Action on Migrant Workers’ Rights

Two Years After World Cup Bid Approved, Exploitative System Persists

(Doha) – Qatar has not delivered on its pledges to improve migrant workers’ rights, Human Rights Watch said today at a news conference in Doha about its World Report 2013. More than two years after it won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, it is high time for Qatar to deliver on its promises for reforms to prevent the trafficking and forced labor of migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said. The Qatar Supreme Committee for Qatar 2022 – the tournament’s quasi-governmental delivery committee – has made encouraging pledges on workers’ rights, but these lack detail. Nor do they mask the failure of the Qatari authorities either to reform exploitative laws, such as the kafala system of sponsorship-based employment and the prohibition on trade unions, or to enforce the prohibition on illegal recruitment fees and the confiscation of passports.

“Qatar’s rulers asserted in 2010 that the country’s successful bid for the World Cup could inspire positive change and leave a huge legacy for the region, but the past two years have seen an absence of reform, said Jan Egeland, Europe director at Human Rights Watch. “If this persists, the tournament threatens to turn Qatar into a crucible of exploitation and misery for the workers who will build it.”

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether the Arab uprisings give birth to genuine democracy or simply spawn authoritarianism in new clothes, Human Rights Watch said.

In June 2012, a 146-page Human Rights Watch report, “Building a Better World Cup,” exposed in detail the shortcomings in Qatar’s legal and regulatory framework, and the consequences for its migrant workers. They already constitute nearly 90 percent of Qatar’s population of 1.9 million, and their numbers will continue to rise as World Cup 2022 construction begins in earnest in 2013. Most come from countries in south Asia.

Laws intended to protect workers are rarely enforced in Qatar. Employers routinely confiscate passports, making it harder for workers to leave, and workers typically pay exorbitant recruitment fees to agents who operate in Qatar and in sending countries such as Nepal. Migrant workers have no right to unionize or strike, though they make up 99 percent of the private sector workforce.

The kafala(sponsorship) system ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to his or her employer, or “sponsor.” Migrant workers cannot change jobs without their sponsoring employer’s consent other than in exceptional cases and with express permission from the Interior Ministry. If a worker leaves an employer, even if fleeing abuse, the employer can report the worker as “absconding,” leading to detention and deportation. To leave Qatar, migrants must obtain an exit visa from their sponsor, and some workers said sponsors denied them these visas.

Many workers said they received false information about their jobs and salaries before arriving, and signed contracts in Qatar under coercive circumstances. Reporting mechanisms and remedies are effectively unavailable to migrant workers. In addition, the labor law excludes domestic workers, almost all of them girls or women, denying them basic protections such as limits to hours of work and weekly days off.

Migrant workers reported extensive labor law violations. Common complaints included late or unpaid wages. Some lived in overcrowded and unsanitary labor camps, which lacked access to potable water, were not properly ventilated, and were not furnished with functioning air condition units. These are crucial elements for adequately minimizing the risk of heat stroke in a country where daytime temperatures can reach 45 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Fahrenheit) in summer months. The 2022 World Cup presents Qatar with an unprecedented opportunity to take the lead on migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf region, and to leave a positive and lasting legacy, Human Rights Watch said. To do so, and to militate against the serious threat of trafficking and forced labor, the Qatari authorities should take the following steps:

  • Set out a timetable to abolish the sponsorship system;
  • Take practical steps to ensure migrant workers have not paid illegal recruitment fees, and prohibit companies from doing business with recruitment agencies and subcontractors, in Qatar and abroad, that impose illegal charges on workers;
  • Enforce prohibitions against confiscation of workers’ passports; and
  • Impose meaningful sanctions on companies and individuals who violate laws designed to protect migrant workers’ rights.

The serious exploitation of Qatar’s migrant workers is not the only area in which Qatar falls well short of the minimum standards imposed by human rights law. The provisions of a new draft media law would build in a double standard on free expression that is inconsistent with Qatar’s claims to be a center for media freedom in the region. Although the draft law calls for abolishing criminal penalties for media law violations, the broadly worded provisions of article 53 prohibit publishing or broadcasting information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state.” Violators would face stiff financial penalties of up to one million Qatari Riyals (US$275,000).

The sentence of life imprisonmenti mposed on a Qatari poet, Mohamed Ibn al-Dheeb, on November 29, 2012, further undermined Qatar’s attempts to present itself as a free speech haven. Ibn al-Dheeb had recited poems that insulted Qatar’s rulers and praised the uprising in Tunisia, but in neither case had he gone beyond his legitimate right to free expression.

“Qatar’s increasing prominence on the international stage should not divert attention from its domestic rights record,” Egeland said. “As the country begins the construction of the stadiums and associated infrastructure required to host the World Cup in 2022, the issue that poses the greatest threat to its international reputation is migrant workers’ rights.”

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