Dubai’s successful bid to host the 2020 World Expo may spell increased competition for Qatar companies seeking talent – which could spur better treatment of and compensation for the country’s foreign workers, local experts have said.
Last night, Dubai won the rights to hold the fair over competing proposals from Yekaterinburg in Russia, Izmir in Turkey and Sao Paulo in Brazil.
Just how much it will cost Dubai to prepare for the expo is uncertain, but media reports peg planned capital spending to range from $6.5 billion to $18 billion. Part of that expenditure will go toward filling some quarter-million new positions as Dubai works to build new hotels, roads and rail lines, officials have said.
This renewed construction and investment boom comes as Qatar ramps up construction for the 2022 World Cup, an event requiring billions of dollars worth of new stadiums and infrastructure, as well as an estimated 1.5 million additional workers.
At the same time, the country has faced an onslaught of negative international press about its treatment of migrant laborers, something likely to be noticed by skilled professionals weighing a move to Qatar.
Academics who study migrant labor here say the supply of construction workers for both cities is unlikely to be a problem. A lack of jobs in some parts of the world means many individuals are willing to travel in search of work.
But having two nations in the region upping their development efforts over a similar timeframe could create more competition for experienced professionals – something one local expert suggested could put pressure on local policymakers to improve Qatar’s image by reforming its sponsorship, or kafala, system.
Speaking to Doha News, Zahra Babar, the assistant director for research at the Centre for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar, said:
“Both countries will have to attract large numbers of highly skilled and highly qualified workers … (The UAE and Qatar) have to make sure the environment here is attractive and that people will want to come.”
Labor market connections
One way that companies attract labor in a competitive market is to increase wages and benefits, said, Silvia Pessoa, an associate teaching professor specializing in migrant labor at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar:
“Workers will go to the place that offers the best salaries and conditions. Maybe that will have implications for improving the living and working conditions of workers.”
However, Babar said poor employment prospects for millions of people living in parts of Africa and South Asia make it unlikely that Dubai’s successful bid will cause a shortage of low-skilled laborers in the Gulf or a bidding war for their services.
“I don’t think that the UAE and Qatar will suddenly be in a position where they are desperately competing to find lower-income workers. The conditions in the sending countries are such that we’re not seeing a decrease in the desire of potential migrants to come.”
Still, as Qatar is already competing for educated and experienced workers, the conditions of laborers at the other end of the spectrum could play a factor, Babar suggested.
Negative publicity about the plight of construction workers, for example, and the restrictive kafala system may deter professionals from taking a position in Qatar.
In recent weeks, the international spotlight has been on Qatar, in part because of new reports from Amnesty International and the United Nations, which highlighted the more restrictive provisions of Qatar’s employment sponsorship system.
That may be a turn-off for professionals who have career opportunities in Hong Kong, Brussels, New York and other places where they may have a greater ability to change jobs and put down roots by owning property, Babar said.
Thus, Qatar’s government continues to struggle with conflicting goals: firstly, the desire to preserve kafala to ensure workers leave after meeting their World Cup deadlines; and second, to introduce reforms that would attract the professionals needed to help the country build a knowledge-based economy, Babar said.
She added that the Ministry of Labor is already putting considerable efforts into cracking down on unscrupulous recruiters, who charge would-be migrants illegal fees while promising unrealistic salaries and employment conditions, as well as introducing stronger safety standards for construction workers.
But those efforts often go unseen because the government lacks a central spokesperson to explain how the country is responding to allegations of human rights abuses, she said.
Do you think the Expo will push Qatar to change? Thoughts?