EXCLUSIVE: In an interview with Doha News, the former head of the International Labour Organisation office in Qatar responded to recent boycott calls, saying dialogue is needed for real change.
Since winning the hosting rights for the Middle East’s first ever FIFA World Cup, Qatar has engaged in several major steps to enforce historic labour reforms for millions of expats across the country.
To showcase its commitment to addressing concerns raised over rights abuses, Qatar welcomed the International Labour Organisation [ILO] in 2018 to set up an office in the country, and for the following three years, Doha’s journey to implement changes was closely overlooked by the head, Houtan Homayounpour.
In February, the senior UN official came to the end of his tenure, in which he oversaw the implementation of a three-year program on workers’ rights and worked closely with the international community as well as Qatari authorities to ensure progress in labour laws.
Doha News spoke to Homayounpour, who is now back in Geneva, to learn more about his time in the Gulf state as well as the status of Qatar’s labour reforms ahead of the World Cup 2022.
“The three years were incredible, incredible partnership, extremely rewarding and fruitful. I think everyone is in agreement and recognises the major achievements of our partnership. If everybody had not come together we would not have had such wonderful results, revolutionary results on labour rights in Qatar,” he told Doha News.
While there were some challenges, Homayounpour said Qatar remains responsive to change and actively works towards reforms, noting that the Gulf state saw the games as an opportunity for change.
“The Qatari authorities took the world cup as an opportunity and that provided a platform for all of these changes to happen and for all different partners, perhaps non-traditional partners, to come together and contribute to the changes. The achievements are the result and proof of a successful outcome,” he said.
Last year, Qatar became a trailblazer in regional labour law reforms after announcing historic changes to the law, ditching the controversial ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC), dismantling the kafala system and providing protection for workers in the country.
More recently, a WhatsApp service to provide information on the country’s labour laws and regulations was launched by authorities to provide a 24-hour response to questions concerning workers.
Calls for boycott
Despite the progress, several nations – most recently The Netherlands and Norway – launched calls to boycott the World Cup allegedly over concerns about the country’s treatment of workers, while citing a report by The Guardian that many slammed as “deceptive”.
In February, a Dutch sports and business trade mission to Qatar was “postponed” due to “concerns” over the mistreatment of construction workers, a decision that experts described as “racially” driven due to the particular focus on Qatar as an Arab state.
While the ILO official did not confirm the speculations, he denounced boycott action as ineffective.
“I do not believe in boycotts. I think really engagement, dialogue is much more effective. You need to be at the table to be able to contribute to positive change,” he said.
“It’s normal to highlight problems, or wonder why they exist,” said Homayounpour, commenting on the boycott movement.
However, there should be more calls for joint efforts to contribute to solutions rather than completely shunning the place where problems are taking place.
“From a common sense point of view, for me personally, a boycott is not really the most effective way to contribute to change. If you’re not part of the discussion, if you’re not a part of the dialogue, then you’re not part of the solution. You’re basically standing outside on the sidelines and really not contributing to improving the situation,” said Homayounpour.
The Guardian’s February report, headlined, “Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar as it gears up for World Cup” purports to incorrectly link the “shocking” death rate with Qatar’s start of the World Cup 2022 journey a decade ago, without clarifying the reasons for the deaths.
The Guardian failed to cite official medical records explaining the circumstances of the deaths and whether or not the deceased worked on any World Cup related projects, but goes on to quote a labour rights in the Gulf experts who says it’s “likely that many workers who died were employed on these World Cup infrastructure projects”.
Since the release of the article, Qatar faced global scrutiny once more, with claims that it has not been actively engaging in reforms, despite taking more action when compared to its neighbours.
However, Homayounpour stopped short of making a comparison.
“We don’t comment on comments or positions, all I have to say in response to that is take a look at the results and the results speak for themselves,” he said.
Challenges remain, work ongoing
“Kafala has been dismantled, no more exit visa, no more NOC or non objection certificate required, free labor market mobility, non-discriminatory minimum wage, the first in the entire region, joint committees, democratic elections at the enterprise level workers picking their representatives,” said Homayounpour, pointing to Qatar’s achievements.
In recent weeks, members of the Shura Council tapped into an ongoing debate on whether the reforms were too far in favour of employees, with some issuing a list of recommendations that reflected the concerns of members of the white-collar camp.
But the senior UN official said the future seems to be optimistic for Qatar and reforms are unlikely to be limited to the 2022 sporting event.
“I had the opportunity to meet with the prime minister, with the minister and any high-level government officials and they’re all seeing the positive results of these major changes. That is only going to improve further and further to make the economy healthier, increase competition, attract investment, and higher skilled workers,” said Homayounpour.
Qatar is now gearing up to host the football event next year and as it prepares to open up its doors to more than 1.5 million visitors from around the world, more major changes are expected.
“We’ve been very happy to support [the progress in Qatar]. Having said that it is also a fact that the picture is not a rosy picture. There are challenges that still remain. So we look forward to continuing to work with the Qatari authorities and our partners,” said Homayounpour.