In the face of intense pressure from the international community, Qatar instituted a series of supposed safeguards over the last year aimed at protecting the state’s substantial migrant worker population from labor and human rights abuses. But do the reforms go far enough? More importantly, are Qatari authorities enforcing the new laws or do the laws amount to an empty diplomatic ploy designed to quiet critics ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup?
While Doha’s newly minted office of International Labor Organization insists that the reforms all but guarantee freedom of movement for the country’s roughly 2 million migrant workers, rights groups contend that Qatar has yet to put forth the adequate resources and funds to ensure that the laws on the books are enforced.
According to Voice of America news, “[m]igrant workers outnumber the local workforce in Qatar by nearly 20 to one.” The majority of those workers come from some of the most impoverished areas of the world, including South Asia.
Ripe for exploitation, migrant workers desperate for a living wage fall victim to a system that is built upon an inherent power differential between employer and employee.
While the fruits of globalization, namely free trade and foreign investment, have pulled tens of millions out of hellfire of abject poverty, the absence of universal labor laws and international enforcement mechanisms, and third-party monitors mean that many workers fall through capitalist cracks and suffer abuses at the hands of employers.
Qatar’s labor market is a paradigmatic example of this phenomenon.
The country’s kafeel worker sponsorship program, a model used across the Persian Gulf to regulate the ebb and flow of foreign labor, was recently amended to allow migrant workers to leave the country without mandatory exit permits approved by their Qatari employers.
But a system that was once marked by the vestiges of chattel slavery can only modernize so much. Indeed, the wealthy petro-state still requires migrant workers to acquire their employer’s consent before changing jobs. This, in turn, allows for, if not incentivizes labor abuses, leaving workers subject to the whims of employers.
Qatar’s yet-to-be enforced minimum wage mandates together with its inchoate committee for registering worker grievances and resolving labor disputes may offer minimal protections, but ultimately it’s unclear if the vast majority foreign laborers possess the resources to access these government outlets.
The fact is, accounts of employers withholding workers’ passports are still quite common. Moreover, Qatari authorities haven’t detailed a coherent plan that can actively police widespread physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse. Left unchecked, employers remain free to keep working conditions unsanitary and unsafe.
Foreign workers still have to be sponsored to enter the state of Qatar. Workers are usually charged exorbitant recruitment fees just for the opportunity to work, plunging them further into poverty-stricken debt. Adding insult to injury, the terms outlined in recruitment contracts are often ignored.
If Qatar wants to get serious about limiting the exploitation and abuse of foreign laborers, then the labor system itself needs to be revolutionized from the ground up. Placing a band aid over a hemorrhaging lesion of human rights violations ahead of the 2022 World Cup games isn’t gong to cut it.