The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Qatar signed an Agreement in 2017 under which the ILO would offer technical assistance to Qatar to address its labour-related issues.
A recent investigation by The New York Times claims that Qatar launched a multi-year political campaign that allegedly helped change the International Labour Organisation, the UN watchdog for workers’ rights, from a critic to an ally.
ILO released a statement saying that they are aware of the New York Times story published on 11 March alleging that “lobbying” by the Government of Qatar ahead of the World Cup turned the ILO “from critic to ally”, denying the premise of the claims.
They clarified that they run more than 40 similar programmes in 24 other countries that are not different from the ILO Qatar Technical Cooperation Programme and its funding mechanism.
All relevant documents, including those pertaining to financing, are readily available on the ILO website, and the programme’s operation has been and remains completely transparent. All of this supporting information, as well as links to the ILO website where it can be found, was given to the New York Times.
According to the NYT article, the ILO received a $25 million contribution from Qatar as to the labour organisation as part of a package of promised changes.
The ILO dismissed the claim as incorrect and clarified by saying: “The $25 million programme funding has been used to run the programme over six years. This was not confidential information and was available on the ILO website, as with all Technical Cooperation projects. This level of funding is not unusual. Neither is it unusual for a government to fund the ILO office in a country.”
The term “Direct/Domestic Trust Funds” (DTF) refers to one of the ILO’s funding options and describes collaboration with member states who entrust the ILO with financial resources to provide technical assistance on their soil, in addition to the regular support that the ILO can offer from its regular budget.
The Direct Trust Fund financing model is currently being used by the ILO to fund 40 technical cooperation projects across 24 nations. The ILO’s independence is unaffected by this funding mechanism.
With the kick off of the World Cup, representatives from Qatar’s labour ministry allegedly requested that the UN agency refrain from making any statements that might cast a negative light on the competition.
According to the ILO’s annual report, there were high-level meetings between the ILO, the business community, the Ministry of Labour, trade unions and the international union federations in October 2022, one month before the World Cup.
The ILO clarified that the meetings between the ILO Director-General and Qatari government representatives during the World Cup were a planned event for the chief’s visit to the nation in December 2022.
The International Trade Union Confederation, which is a member of the UN agency’s governing body, revealed in a confidential report that it was susceptible to corruption on “operational, financial, constitutional, and political” levels.
According to the The Times newspaper, there is a pressing need to defend against “threats posed to the global trade union movement.”
Governments may be subject to investigations, legal action, and designation as rights violators by the International Labour Organisation, actions that may jeopardise foreign investment and harm reputations.
The labour organisation frequently treated Qatar more like a paying client than a nation under investigation, claimed several current and former employees, according to The New York Times, further alleging that the organisation’s office in Doha was supported by contributions from Qatar, which also provided millions for general administrative expenses.
Within United Nations agencies and other international organisations, this argument over where to draw the line between diplomacy and influence peddling is common.
Organisations such as Interpol, the World Health Organisation and the International Maritime Organisation have come under fire for adopting policies that benefit their corporate partners or government members.
Since the International Labour Organisation opened an office in Doha in 2018, labour rights have improved in Qatar. Qatar established a minimum wage and declared that employees could change jobs without the permission of their employers. According to ILO officials, these improvements were obtained through careful negotiations. They claimed that criticism would have only hindered the advancement.
“Several current and former employees said the labour organisation often treated Qatar more like a paying client than a country under scrutiny. The Qatari contribution funded the organisation’s office in Doha and provided millions for its general administrative costs,” said the NYT.
In their statement, the ILO clarifies that it is “inaccurate to describe the ILO’s work in Qatar as ‘consulting services’ but rather technical advisory assistance/services provided to a member state in line with the ILO’s mandate. This is no different to any other relationship we have with our constituents in 187 countries.”
The ILO is the only organisation under the United Nations that is made up of organisations that represent both employers and workers in addition to governments.
‘Clear commitment to labour reforms’
According to Belgian unionist Luc Cortebeeck, who oversaw the workers’ group at the agency, Qatari diplomats organised employers and nations with Qatari business interests to oppose an investigation, as reported by the NYT.
The Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, an independent ILO supervisory body, handled the complaint against Qatar, making several recommendations.
The investigation, known as “Commission of Enquiry” never took place.
The ILO says that after Qatar’s government had shown a clear commitment to significant labour reforms, based on the recommendations of the ILO independent supervisory body, and after signing the technical assistance agreement with the ILO, the ILO Governing Body, which serves as the organisation’s “board of directors,” closed the complaint against Qatar.
Qatar is the only nation in the region that cooperates with outside organisations to improve working conditions.
“As a result of the complaint, some legislation was adopted, for example the 2017 domestic workers’ law. Going forward there was agreement to work with the ILO technical cooperation programme to address all the issues raised in the complaint and to introduce several more significant measures including reforms to the kafala system, the introduction of a minimum wage and heat-stress legislation. After the closing of the complaint, there was an annual review of progress and an independent evaluation of the work achieved through the technical cooperation programme for three years, a procedure that has been applied to similar cases relating to other countries,” said the ILO.
The ILO said that it has, and will continue to, draw attention to specific shortcomings and difficulties in implementation and enforcement. The annual reports and other publications pertaining to Qatar have described these gaps.
As it relates to Qatar’s compliance with international labour standards, the independent Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations continues to investigate these developments.