When German companies meet in Frankfurt on November 6 to discuss business opportunities in Qatar, human rights should matter. It is not only the recent criticism that rained down on Qatar over the international media coverage of the Gulf state’s failure to prevent mistreatment of its migrant workers.
In June 2012, Human Rights Watch issued a damning report on human rights abuses, including forced labor, in Qatar's construction sector. Workers reported a range of problems, including unpaid wages, illegal salary deductions, crowded and unsanitary labor camps, and unsafe working conditions. Other rights groups and trade unions have been similarly critical.
The fact is that German firms bidding for contracts should be exerting whatever influence they can to minimize the risks that go hand in hand with working in Qatar. The prime risk to firms is the potential damage to their reputations. And German CEOs have surely noted that UK lawyers visited Qatar recently in a fact-finding mission with a view to assessing the potential liability of UK firms for human rights abuses.
So what can German firms do? The best defense is first to take short-term measures to ensure that their labor supply chain is free from abuses. Self-regulatory codes, such as the one recently adopted by the quasi-governmental Qatar Foundation, should not be regarded as a substitute for state-led regulation and cannot guarantee minimum standards on their own. But they are a step in the right direction.
In the long-term, construction firms should be pushing their Qatari partners to reform the system that facilitates forced labor. And companies should ask for more support from the FIFA, which is organizing the World Cup 2022 in Qatar and whose executive director, Joseph Blatter, is placing the main burden on companies and Qatar’s government instead of addressing FIFA’s own responsibility.
FIFA for its part should be pressured to insist on a timetable for labor reform in Qatar that ensures the fundamental rights of all migrant workers, not just those directly involved in 2022 projects. It could, for example, offer whatever technical and medical assistance it can to the Qataris on the issue of apparent heat-related deaths in construction work. Finally, FIFA should insist on the abolition of the exit visa system, which requires the consent of an employer for a worker to leave the country. While the case of the French professional footballer Zahir Belounis, who was also caught up in that web, got public attention, other workers facing the same problem can’t rely on any interest in their plight.
Ultimately, this issue will require bold leadership right from the top. Sheikh Tamim, Qatar's new emir, has much to gain from taking a strong line on labor rights. For all the controversy over Qatar’s selection to host the 2022 tournament, the scrutiny and pressure that the Qatari authorities are now under make genuine labor reform in the country a possibility. German businesses can play a part in that and it would be to their credit if they did – far beyond the World Cup in 2022.
Wenzel Michalski is the Germany director at Human Rights Watch