By James M. Dorsey
The adoption of a human rights declaration by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that was designed to shield wealthy Gulf monarchies including 2022 World Cup host Qatar from criticism by human rights and trade union activists is likely to increase pressure on the sports-focused Gulf state to significantly alter its controversial migrant labour system.
The GCC states’ declaration was adopted earlier this month at a summit of Gulf leaders in the Qatari capital, Doha. The declaration signalled the GCC’s refusal to recognise its citizen’s political rights including the right to freedom of thought and expression.
It did however acknowledge that “people are equal in dignity and humanity, in rights and freedoms, and equal before the law” with “no distinction between them for reasons of origin, gender, religion, language, colour, or any other form of distinction”.
That acknowledgement strengthens demands by human rights and trade union activists that Qatar embrace the principle of collective bargaining that would eliminate its system of setting wages for migrant workers according to nationality.
Proponents of a radical reform of Qatar’s sponsorship or kafala system, that puts workers at the mercy of their employers, have argued that Qatar needs to introduce a uniform minimum wage and authorise collective bargaining – a key demand of the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICTU), one of Qatar’s toughest critics.
Standards for the working and living conditions of migrant workers issued by the Qatar Foundation (QF), one of two government institutions alongside the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy at the forefront of a push for change, insist that “workers shall receive equal pay for equal work irrespective of their nationality, gender, ethnic origin, race, religion or legal status”. The 2022 committee’s standards stress equal treatment of workers.
A report to the foundation by migration scholar Ray Jureidini said that “it is not entirely certain how the comparative wage differences have been derived, or why”. The report recommended introduction of a minimum wage to eliminate discriminatory wage policies as part of an effort to ensure Qatar’s competitiveness.
With the executive committee of FIFA meeting in Morocco, a member of the committee, Thomas Zwanziger, warned that the world football body could deprive Qatar of its World Cup hosting rights if the Gulf state failed to implement recommendations that included the creation of a minimum wage for each category of construction worker made by a Qatar-sponsored review of its labour legislation by British-based law firm DLA Piper. The review called for far-reaching reforms including abolition of the kafala system and proposed the establishment of an independent commission to oversee the reform process.
Qatar has been slow in acting on pledges it has made as well as recommendations in a slew of reports published in recent years. Qatari officials said a reform of the country’s labour law was likely by the end of this. The reform is expected however to fall far short of the demands of activists and the recommendations made in the various reports.
Qatar’s reluctance to act decisively in response to the criticism of its labour system is rooted in its demography; foreigners account for 88% of Qatar’s population. As a result, Qatar’s fear that their need for foreign labour at all levels of society threatens their grip on their state and culture. That fear means that the government is caught in a Catch-22: it needs to respond aggressively to international criticism but move gradually to maintain domestic cohesion.
Demography has also played into allegations by Qatar’s distractors that the Gulf state lacks a passionate fan culture. Stadia are often largely empty during sporting events. To counter the criticism, Qatar allegedly pays migrant workers up to 30 Qatari riyals ($8) to attend sporting events at times dressed up in Qatari national dress.
“For this pittance, workers from Africa and Asia sprint under blinding sun in the Doha industrial zone where they’re housed and surround a still-moving bus like bees on honey. They sit through volleyball, handball and football, applaud to order, do the wave with no enthusiasm and even dress up in white robes and head-scarves as Qataris, to plump up ‘home’ crowds,” said John Leicester, an Associated Press reporter who joined one of three buses carrying some 150 workers paid to attend a volleyball match.
The presenter of last month’s successful Qatari bid for the 2019 World Athletics Championship, Aphrodite Moschoudi, noted that “Qatar has a true passion for sports. Everything in our country revolves around sport.” Quipped Leicester: “Or, when passion is lacking, around money.”
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