By James M. Dorsey
Qatar is signalling the rejection of demands of human rights and trade union activists to grant trade union and collective bargaining rights to its majority migrant worker population with the detention and likely deportation of more than 100 predominantly South Asian labourers who went on strike to protest low pay as well as poor working and living conditions.
Doha News reported that the workers, among the lowest paid in the wealthy Gulf state, were arrested on the third day of their strike, after scuffles broke out with police. Those detained were among some 800 striking workers primarily employed by two companies; Qatar Freelance Trading & Contracting, and Qatar Middle East Co.
Online business directories describe Qatar Freelance Trading & Contracting as a manpower supplier or recruitment agency. A Qatar Foundation study designed to set out ethical standards for the recruitment of foreign labour earlier this year defined manpower suppliers as “agencies that recruit and ‘warehouse’ migrant labour, hiring (or leasing) them out to companies and other organisations on short-term or seasonal bases.”
Quoting anonymous executives of unidentified agencies, the report suggested that workers employed by these agencies were forced to pay for the cost of their recruitment in violation of what the Foundation defined as ethical recruitment principles that seek to ensure workers’ rights and shield them from exploitation. The 162-page report said it was able to identify only two agencies that it would define as ethical recruiters.
Striking workers told Doha News that they were paid less than the legal minimum wage in Nepal and were refused compensation if they fell ill. The workers charged that once in Qatar they had been forced to replace contracts they had signed before their departure with blank agreements, which meant they were being paid less than had been originally agreed and enjoyed fewer benefits such as a food allowance.
A Nepalese news website said that Qatari officials and Nepalese diplomats had visited the workers before the strike. Those visits appear, however, to have produced no improvement of their situation.
A spokesman for Qatar Freelance Trading and Contracting denied the allegations in an interview with Doha News and said the workers were simply trying to get higher pay. He said a number of workers had requested repatriation.
The strike occurred as more than 90 human rights groups and trade unions issued a statement demanding the abolition of the region’s kafala or sponsorship system that puts workers at the mercy of their employers; the ratification and the implementation of international labour and human rights standards; and engage with trade unions.
Gulf states, including Qatar, are about to adopt a standardised contract for domestic workers that would grant them the right to a weekly day off, having their own living arrangements rather than being forced to live with their employer, a six-hour working day with paid overtime, and the right to travel. Trade unionists said they were reserving judgement until they had seen a draft of the standardised contract.
Human rights activists argue that the kafala system and costly legal options often make strikes – although relatively rare in the Gulf – the only way foreign workers can get their voices heard. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have in the past cracked down and deported striking workers. The Qatar labour ministry has sought to facilitate workers’ complaints by recently installing kiosks at its branches where workers can file an electronic complaint.
Human rights and trade union activists worry, however, that the government’s handling of the strike could signal a hardening of attitudes. Qatar has been susceptible to pressure by human rights and trade union activists ever since it four years ago won the right to host the 2022 World Cup.
The activists had hoped that workers’ political rights, such as independent trade unions and collective bargaining, would become possible as part of a gradual reform process that would start with improved working and living conditions. Despite engagement with the activists – in stark contrast to attitudes in other Gulf states that bar entry and detain critics – Qatar has yet to enact lofty promises of change.
The handling of the strike suggests not only that Qatar, a comparatively enlightened autocracy, has no intention of political liberalisation at the end of the process, but that even those issues Qatar is willing to discuss are at risk.
The intervention by the police effectively deprived the workers of their last resort to voice legitimate grievances that violate existing Qatari rules and regulations as well as Qatari promises of reform. In the absence of an investigation of the reasons for the strike, it reduced the police to acting as the private security arm of potentially abusive employers.
In a stark condemnation, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) secretary general Sharan Burrow, one of Qatar’s most uncompromising critics, charged that “Qatar’s brutal disregard for migrant workers is on display once again. The ‘labour reforms’ promised by the authorities add up to nothing, and (world football body) FIFA, the athletics body IAAF, multinationals and others which are getting a free ride on the back of modern slavery in Qatar should be ashamed to be in league with a dictatorship like this,” Burrow said in a statement.
Burrow was referring to Qatar’s winning this month of the right to host the 2019 world athletics championships despite the fact that it had yet to enact serious labour reform. Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas McGeehan told The Guardian that “if Qatar had shown any signs of making significant reforms to its labour system then this decision could have represented just reward for Qatar’s progress, but as it stands it looks like the IAAF has just given its seal of approval to Qatar’s callous indifference” towards the rights of foreign workers.
In a bid to circumvent Qatar’s ban on trade unions, international labour groups are exploring ways to help workers in countries like Qatar express grievances and unionise by, for example, joining global organisations such as Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI). BWI executives recently held a series of discreet meetings with workers in Qatar.
Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet quoted Swedish Building Workers’ Union chairman Johan Lindholm as telling South Asian workers during an encounter in a restaurant: “There are 1.5 million of you. They need you. You are building their nation and you will be the ones building the Football World Cup in 2022. You should have rights!”
Workers raised the same kind of complaints during the encounter that prompted their colleagues to go on strike, according to Svenska Dagbladet. The newspaper said one worker pulled receipts out of his pocket to prove that they were forced to buy food in a company canteen that was double the price of what it would cost the workers to cook their own food.
In what appeared to suggest a growing assertiveness among some foreign workers, the worker with the receipts told the trade unionists he was willing to risk campaigning for labour rights. “I may get in trouble, but there are 16,000 workers in the company I work for who can have it better. I’ll do it. I’m not afraid,” Svenska Dagbladet quoted the worker as saying.
In response, BWI secretary general Ambet Yuson suggested that a union lawyer could take up the issue if a number of workers would sign a complaint.
The trade union visit was part of an effort to create informal local networks as well as a legal aid office that could help workers seek redress for their grievances. BWI is expected to discuss allowing workers in countries like Qatar to become members at a meeting in May.
“We want to send the international football association FIFA a signal telling them that we will never stop working on this issue. We have put the shovel in the sands of Qatar and we will see to that things start happening,” Mr. Lindholm told the Swedish paper.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.