Scepticism prevails over Qatar keeping reform promises for World Cup

“Qatar has made more announcements of reforms than actual reforms," said Human Rights Watch's Hiba Zayadin.
Friday 28/02/2020
A construction worker at Qatar's Lusail Stadium, north of Doha. (AFP)
Dire conditions. A construction worker at Qatar's Lusail Stadium, north of Doha. (AFP)

LONDON - The road to the Qatar-hosted 2022 FIFA World Cup, the first in the Middle East, has been paved with many controversies, including a bribery scandal involving Qatari and FIFA officials and Doha’s human rights record.

Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary-general of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy of the Qatar World Cup 2022, announced in late 2019 that, in January 2020, significant reforms would be put in place. He told the Guardian newspaper that abolition of the kafala system of worker sponsorship would mean “every person living in the country has the freedom to move from one job to another and can live their lives, change jobs whenever they want and leave the country as they want.”

However, promised reforms have not materialised.

“We’ve been here before, with past pledges of change resulting in little more than hot air and broken promises. An endless spiral of shameful deja vu persists,” wrote Willy Fautre, director of the Human Rights Without Frontiers NGO.

However, some media hailed Qatar for supposed significant reforms in migrant workers' rights, especially the dropping of the kafala system in which workers must be sponsored by a national or a company in the country where they hope to work. Often civil liberties were compromised, including limits on changing jobs or leaving the country because many workers had their passports confiscated under the sponsorship programme.

Experts told The Arab Weekly that little had changed in Qatar regarding workers' rights.

“Qatar, on several occasions, claimed to have abolished the kafala system,” said Hiba Zayadin, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The first instance was in “2016, after a forced labour complaint was filed against them at the International Labour Organisation (ILO),” she said, stressing that, instead of following through with its pledge to drop kafala, the Qatari government changed the word "sponsor" in the law to “recruiter" but the effect remained much the same.

Zayadin said Qatari authorities failed to provide migrant workers with basic necessities regarding protection from heat and did not investigate worker deaths or provide data related to them.

Qatari officials have claimed to abolish the kafala system in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

“Qatar has made more announcements of reforms than actual reforms,” Zayadin said, but Doha “just announced that they would be reforming certain pillars of kafala.”

She said one section of the system that was removed was the need for approval from a sponsor when leaving the country. However, cases of passport confiscation from sponsors or employers reportedly rose.

“We also saw a rise in absconding cases and those rare cases when an employer can complain to the police about the employee being a runaway, simply for trying to leave the place of employment and that leaves you at risk of arrest and deportation,” Zayadin said.

Another aspect tied to the kafala system that was meant to be reformed is the ability to change employers without the current employer's approval.

“That is still on the books even though in October they announced they were going to do that and presented it as an end to kafala and that it was going to happen in January and now we are in late February,” Zayadin said, adding that migrant workers had reached out to HRW and are waiting for the law to change.

“The major thing is to look at the announcements versus the actual reforms and to always read the fine print because that’s where all the loopholes are,” she added.

Another aspect tied to the mistreatment of migrant workers has been delayed or non-payment from employers. Cases of people working for months without pay led the government to introduce a Wage Protection System (WPS) to guarantee that workers receive salaries through a direct bank transfer by the end of the first week of every month.

Reports indicate that the system has fallen short of its intended purpose.

“There were promises made with regards to improving the WPS; however, we are receiving reports of unpaid wages and workers working for months without receiving their salaries,” said May Romanos, Gulf researcher on migrants' rights for Amnesty International.

“We still have hundreds of migrant workers who are being pushed to leave the country penniless after the company failed to pay them and, on a daily basis, we receive cases about workers not getting paid for months.

“The wage protection system that is in place is not capable of tackling the issue and is not capable of flagging situations when workers are not getting paid and what measures are being put in place to guarantee workers get paid are unclear.”

The United Nations set up an ILO (International Labour Office) in Qatar in 2017 to help and advise on the treatment of migrant workers.

“I think they (ILO officials) have been trying to push the Qataris on these promises but what we are seeing is that the implementation remains very weak. So, while some reforms are probably good on paper, their implementation is not necessarily changing the reality for migrant workers on the ground,” Romanos said.

“So, we would really like to see these reforms being implemented in an effective way and really deliver true changes for migrant workers.”