By James M. Dorsey
Qatar, in a bid to fend off a possible move to deprive it of the right to host the 2022 World Cup because of its failure to adopt international standards for foreign workers, is drafting a charter for laborers involved in the construction of infrastructure related to the tournament.
The announcement of the planned charter by the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee comes amid a rare series of articles in Qatari media depicting workers’ difficulties and a call to offer laborers relief in part through sports.
It further follows a rare news conference in the Qatari capital Doha by Human Rights Watch in which it charged that the Gulf state had failed to live up to its promise to address the fundamental rights of foreign workers who account for about a third of the population in a country in which non-nationals are the majority as well as condemnatory statements by international trade union leaders.
"We are currently in the final stages of drafting a migrant worker charter that will be implemented on all tournament-related projects. Our aim is for this charter to be completed and in place by the end of the first quarter of 2013. We have actively sought out concrete suggestions on best practices and are evaluating how those can be accomplished,” Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network quoted a committee statement as saying.
Details of the planned charter were not immediately available. Nevertheless, while the charter is likely to involve improvements of the conditions of foreign workers, it is unlikely to satisfy demands by trade unions and human rights groups. For one, the committee’s authority does not stretch beyond issues involved in hosting the World Cup. As a result, it would only affect workers involved in World Cup-related projects unless it was to be adopted by the ministry of labor.
Qatar has so far moved to enforce safety, security and health standards and improve living conditions, but has stopped short of meeting demands for a lifting of its sponsorship system that makes workers dependent on their employer and deprives them of their freedom of movement and ability to freely change jobs. It has also shied away from endorsing calls for the right to form independent trade unions and engage in collective bargaining. Qatari press reports said that the Cabinet had this week reviewed proposed new safety regulations for workers.
In a possible breakthrough, labor minister Sultan bin Hassan advised International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) secretary general Sharan Burrow last November that Qatar would not penalize workers who formed or joined an independent union. The ITUC with 175 million members in 153 countries has said it would put the minister’s words to the test later this year. It has threatened to launch a boycott campaign against the World Cup if Qatar fails to meet international labor standards.
The planned charter, the improvement in material conditions and the domestic debate all illustrate that the trade unions and human rights groups have gained leverage with Qatar’s winning in December 2010 of the right to host the World Cup and are having an impact even if the response so far fails to address the structural and fundamental issues they have raised.
The pressure on Qatar is in advance of an expected influx of up to one million additional workers to complete massive infrastructure projects many of which are unrelated to the World Cup although likely to benefit it. In addition, projections predict that construction costs in the coming years are likely to rise substantially.
Nevertheless, labor issues that in the past remained unspoken of because they either risked opening the Pandora’s box of foreigners seeing their presence in Qatar as more than temporary or shed the Gulf state in a bad light are being publicly discussed.
A series of articles in The Peninsula, a Qatari English-language newspaper, portrayed various aspects of the lives of migrant workers, including informal self-organized money pools that constitute a rudimentary social security system for workers and the lack of entertainment and relaxation opportunities as well as access to the Internet. Qatar University sociologist Kaltham Al Al-Ghanim noted that unskilled foreign workers were not included in the country’s National Strategy for Social Security (2011-16). “Isolating these large sections of our population can make them vulnerable to crime. They can be a challenge to social security,” she said.
The newspaper noted that the lack of free-time opportunities had sparked the illegal sale of pirated CDs at Doha’s Al Ghanim bus station where workers congregate on Fridays, their day off, because there are no facilities in the Industrial Zone where there camps are located. Qatar’s foremost pastime, a visit to the mall or a park, is often off limits because the conservative state seeks to limit entry of single men. To address the issue, Qatar is building in the Industrial Zone an entertainment and commercial center for foreign workers as well as a sports facility.
In a break with the past, Ms. Al-Ghanim, called on the country’s sports clubs to set up branches in the Industrial Zone “to channel their energy to productive avenues and hunt for sporting talent.” Sports clubs in Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf have largely targeted local nationals rather than foreigners for fear that identification with a sports club would give them a more permanent sense of belonging. The approach is one reason why stadiums in the region are relatively empty during matches.
Ms. Al-Ghanim cautioned that if foreign workers were allowed to “live on the social fringes, the danger is they would take to illegal activities and emerge as a threat to social security.” She said the need to engage them socially was enhanced by the fact that many of them were unmarried or in Qatar without their families.
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.