It’s not really news, but now it’s official. Qatar’s treatment of more than half its population — most of whom are from the Indian subcontinent — violates a long list of human rights, and is now the subject of a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The report doesn’t exactly come as a surprise, as most Qataris are familiar with the plight of the men who build their homes, towers, malls and parks. The horrendous conditions in which they live at the labour camp slums is no secret, nor is the fact that they are not allowed to enjoy the facilities they help build.

Entertainment complexes are built in the ‘Industrial area’, away from the city, for the exclusive use of these labourers. Their housing too is hidden away there.

"The government justifies the segregation on grounds of the country's skewed gender ratio - 1,284,739 male and 414,696 female, according to a recent census.''

The government’s rationale is to move ‘bachelors’ away from the residential areas where families live.

But it is hard to ignore the many cultural and/or religious factors at play.

Exiled to the ghettos

Nationals (Qataris) comprise only 15 per cent of the country’s population of 1.7 million — making it probably the lowest citizen-to-migrant ratio in the world; Indians form the single largest group at 24 per cent. More than half the population is from the subcontinent: Nepali 16 per cent; Sri Lankan 5 per cent; Bangladeshi 5 per cent; Pakistani 4 per cent. Migrant workers constitute a massive 94 per cent of Qatar’s workforce. The single largest sector, construction, employs more than half a million of this workforce.

Anything for kick-off

Juxtaposing the migrant worker’s plight with Qatar’s preparations for hosting the football world cup championship in 2022, the HRW in April brought out its report titled ‘Building a Better World Cup, Protecting Migrant Workers in Qatar Ahead of FIFA 2022’.

The same week, Al Jazeera English — that ‘beacon’ of media freedom in the region — for the very first time sought to criticise Qatar’s labour policies. Many people wondered at the timing and the intent behind these moves.

Consider this too: Some weeks ago, the government’s Advisory Council approved a media law that is yet to receive the Emir’s blessing. This proposed law allows for criminal penalties against journalists who criticise friendly countries or matters pertaining to national security. Meanwhile, the Doha Centre for Media Freedom criticises the lack of freedom in every country it can spot on the atlas, but doesn’t have much to say on this law.

It’s precisely this kind of opaque policies and hypocrisy that opens up Qatar to international scrutiny.

Football to the rescue

So, was the HRW report done at the behest of people at the very top in Qatar?

The report’s author, Cairo-based Priyanka Motaparthy dismisses this theory. “The government did nothing to initiate the report; we had no conversations with them until after we had begun research in Qatar. We saw the World Cup 2022 as an opportunity to raise the issue of migrant workers’ rights as we have elsewhere in the Gulf. But HRW is keen on providing the government the tools with which it can change the prevailing impasse,” she stresses.

In the report she writes that the local law makes it “impossible for workers involved in World Cup construction to engage in collective bargaining and push for better protection, as workers in South Africa and Brazil — hosts of the 2010 and 2014 World Cup — did, gaining wage increases and improved health and safety provisions.” The International Trade Union Confederation has also been running a sustained campaign against Qatar’s labour policies, prodding FIFA to take responsibility for the choices it makes.

All’s fair in business

So what next for the half-a-million-plus constructions workers? Though the government did cooperate with HRW during the research, the response post-publication seems lukewarm. “After the report’s release, the government has made it clear that it won’t rush policy change, especially in the case of the Kafala (sponsorship) system,” says Priyanka.

A worker’s legal residence is tied to his or her employer or “sponsor”. Migrant workers cannot change jobs without their sponsor’s consent. In order to leave Qatar, migrants must obtain an exit visa from the sponsor (who often also holds their passport), and some are also denied the visa.

Over the last couple of years, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, who is also the Foreign Minister, has said in various forums that the sponsorship system has no future, and will have to be scrapped.

The private sector is at odds with what the government says. Qatar Chamber of Commerce and Industry Vice-Chair Mohamed bin Ahmed Al Kuwari told a local daily, “An employer brings a worker from overseas, provides him hands-on training to do a specific job and makes him skilful, so he has the right to retain him. It is not right on the part of a foreign worker to ask for sponsorship change because he owes his job and skills to his employer.”

But Priyanka claims that this is the only country in the region, apart from Saudi Arabia, that retains the particularly burdensome exit permit law. UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain have all made some reforms to the Kafala system. “It’s an irony that Qatar, which supported human rights and pro-democracy movements in Libya and Syria, has yet to address the major human rights problem in its own country,” she says.

She adds: “We will follow up with the (Qatar) government, and put pressure till the necessary action is taken.”

Until then, the hundreds of thousands of Asian workers will continue working here on a wing and a prayer.

(This article was published on July 19, 2012)
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