Workers' rights in Qatar

Reform will come, because it is increasingly clear that the system has become untenable.

The Guardian newspaper has just released a piece by Nick Cohen tackling the issue of worker’s rights in Qatar, a particularly sensitive issue in the Gulf and one that elicits strong emotions from many both inside and outside the region. Cohen has put his finger on an important issue in the country and the piece was certainly moving.

It is hard not to notice the social stratification in Qatar, and in particular the thousands of young south Asian men in blue overalls undertaking backbreaking labour in the dust and heat of the Gulf. Horrendous stories of mistreatment pervade the country of men dropping dead on building sites, or committing suicide by running in front of cars to end their misery and collect a little insurance money because they haven’t been paid.  The list goes on and on.

You don’t need to consult Human Rights Watch or Amnesty on this, all you need to do is look at the surroundings to know that there is a problem, a very serious one, and it needs to be addressed.

However in trying to find ways to go about solving this problem the Guardian article overstepped some lines, and even liberal Qataris who are very open to reform and change were deeply angered at its phrasing and tone. A tip to those journalists out there wanting to cover the Gulf: if you anger the liberals in a Gulf country you missed the mark, badly, and you may as well consider your article no better than fish and chip paper. People in London might nod approvingly, but if the aim is to effect change in the Gulf then it’s a failure.

The approach that the Guardian article took is guaranteed to produce one or more of the following reactions from Qataris, i.e. the people who can actually change something for the better in this country.

  • - You hate the country, get lost
  • - Who are you Westerner, who built your power on the extermination of locals across the globe and the exploitation of human beings for centuries, to lecture us on how to treat people?
  • - You criticise us but are more than happy to take our money when you need it for everything from paying off your debt, to your shops, to your skyscrapers, and your football teams.
  • - When your western construction companies come into Qatar they are the first ones to hire teams of cheap Asian labourers to do the job. Look at yourselves first before criticising us.

Simply put, the way one words a critical piece about Qatar affects the way it is perceived. Most Qataris know there are serious problems with labour rights in the country, they are not cold unfeeling monsters. Yes, there can be racial divides and negative stereotypes which reflect badly on the local population. But the vast majority of Qataris know reform must come, and that the clock is ticking down towards 2022, a time in which the country will come under the spotlight of the world’s gaze. If the laws stay as they are, that gaze will be not be a favourable one.

Covering important issues such as the issue of Gulf workers and the Kafala (sponsorship) system needs the input of the locals themselves, and to actually get them to engage with the issue. Nowhere in Cohen’s piece is there actually a view of a Qatari expressed. We’re not even made aware if the locals have an opinion on this issue or not, or the Emir, or the Ministries. 

Many Qataris have opinions on this issue, including those in power. Ask anyone here, the Kafala system is almost universally disliked, both by the employer and the employee. It places the employer under unacceptable liability for the actions of his employees: a worker might get into a simple argument on his day off but the sponsor will be blamed. Additionally the Kafala process is extremely time consuming, inefficient and bureaucratic. From the employee side, the system ties his/her fate to the whims of a sponsor who may mistreat them, allows for no freedom to change jobs, and provides little space for the employee to stand and fight for his rights.

As a counterfactual it is worth noting that Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Research Institute found from a sample of 2500 locals that 88% do not want the Kafala system removed (58% want it kept the same and 30% want it strengthened). 

But it is clear many Qataris also understand there are problems. In three years of conversations with numerous Qataris I have not found one who believed the system could last, or indeed did not see the problems inherent within it. This is especially true in the segment of younger tertiary level educated Qataris.

To paraphrase the former Minister of Labour the reform will come, because it is increasingly clear that the system has become untenable. And it is not the case that the country is run by a family who is in complete ignorance of the problem. Of course when reform arrives it will be twenty years too late, and generations of young men will have suffered, but it is fundamentally incorrect to say that the authorities here do not want to change the system, when rudimentary investigation indicates that they in fact do.

Business interests are often the hindrance, and the young Emir, like his father will need to work hard to combat those companies, including many western entities that accept and propagate the system that stands against the interests of a majority of the country, local and foreign alike. It will require strength and resolve to punish those who exploit human life for their own benefit, and it won’t be popular with some. But let’s be clear, Qatar doesn’t really have a choice and the sooner this issue is tackled the sooner the country can remove this smudge against its name.

About the author

Michael Stephens is a Researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Qatar, follow him on Twitter @MStephensGulf