Qatar-ILO Announcement: Action on reforms critical for workers

Since 2012, Humanity United has worked with a variety of stakeholders and across numerous sectors to move toward meaningful change for migrant workers in Qatar – including Qatari government agencies, multinational and local businesses, media, civil society organizations, migrant workers, and others.

Yesterday, the International Labour Organization and the Qatari government announced a new technical cooperation agreement to address some of the key concerns around forced labor in the country raised by trade unions, international bodies, migrant workers, and civil society organizations. This agreement precedes the ILO’s Governing Body session on November 8, during which a complaint against Qatar for failing to adequately address the situation of forced labor affecting the 1.6 million migrant worker population will be discussed.

We welcome the new agreement’s specific focus on some of the major problems affecting workers, particularly the aim to remove restrictions on workers’ abilities to change employers and leave the country. This is currently a major structural problem contributing to migrant workers’ vulnerability to forced labor and exploitation.

Although the agreement provides a clear path forward to reforms, it is only as strong as its implementation. The Qatari government previously made similar promises, but has fallen short of actually removing the legal structures that leave migrant workers vulnerable to abuse and forced labor.

As an example of this trend, the Qatari government announced “abolishment” of the sponsorship system through amendment of immigration regulations (No. 21 of 2015 on the entry, exit and stay of expatriates) in 2015. However, to date, these reforms remain largely superficial. Even in its 2016 report, the ILO notes that under the new law employers will still exercise a tremendous amount of control over their employees’ ability to leave the country and that the law does not allow employees to change employers without the employer’s permission during their initial contract. The report further notes that these restrictions on migrant workers’ mobility “prevent workers who might be victims of abusive practices from freeing themselves from these situations.” Additionally, the domestic work law introduced in 2017 falls short of providing adequate protections to these workers, despite their significant vulnerabilities to exploitation.

Besides the agreed-upon removal of restrictions on labor mobility, other areas identified in technical agreement include greater oversight to ensure payment of wages, as well as introduction of a national minimum wage; increasing and improving labor inspections and health and safety inspections; implementation of the domestic worker law introduced in 2017; more effectively addressing forced labor; and improving workers’ access to redress, such as supporting establishment of joint representative committees involving employees and employers.

By effectively implementing these commitments to address forced labor and exploitation, Qatar would set new regional standards for respecting workers’ rights. As the country prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it will provide opportunities and employment for migrant workers in all sectors. Qatar should do its utmost to help the many people who are, in turn, helping to build the future of the country.