Qatar has one of the highest rates of modern slavery proportionate to its population, according to the latest edition of the Global Slavery Index.
The index, compiled by the Walk Free Foundation, finds that Qatar has the fifth highest concentrations of “slaves” globally, measured at 1.35 percent of its population, which was estimated at 2.24 million at the time the study was put together.
This equates to around 30,300 people, most of whom are working under “forced labor” in the country’s construction sector, according to the survey.
However, as in many similar studies which measure by percentages, Qatar’s position is skewed by its relatively small overall population and high number of migrant workers.
When the numbers are rated in absolute terms, Qatar comes in 91st place out of a total of 167 countries assessed for the survey.
The index defines modern slavery as being “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception, with treatment akin to a farm animal.”
It includes situations of human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, and the sale and exploitation of children.
Top of the table
North Korea heads the table measuring slavery as a proportion of population, with 4.37 percent or 1.1 million people from its 25 million population categorized as “slaves”.
Uzbekistan and Cambodia follow in second and third places respectively.
While India takes fourth place with 1.4 percent of its population regarded as “slaves”, this amounts to 18.4 million people and for Pakistan (in sixth place with 1.13 percent) a total of 2.13 million are working in slavery, according to the index.
In percentages, Qatar fares significantly worse than its Gulf neighbors, however in absolute terms, Saudi Arabia (92,100) and the UAE (37,000) have more people estimated to be working as “slaves”.
Other GCC states are ranked as:
- Kuwait (joint 25), 0.47 percent of population, 18,200 people;
- Bahrain (joint 25), 0.47 percent of population, 6,400 people;
- UAE (32), 0.4 percent of population, 37,000 people;
- Oman (37), 0.29 percent, 13,200 people; and
- Saudi Arabia (38), 0.29 percent, 92,100 people.
Countries were assessed on three main themes – the size of the problem, government responses to it and vulnerability of workers to enslavement.
For the latter category, a total of 24 factors were studied, including civil and political protections; social, health and economic rights; personal security and refugees and conflict.
In a detailed country report, Qatar’s sizable lower-income migrant labor population is flagged as its key problem.
“Forced labor in the construction sector is one of the dominant forms of modern slavery in Qatar, reflecting the demand for cheap labor to build extensive infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and National Vision 2030.
The ongoing construction of football stadiums, and the huge infrastructure projects required to access and service these locations, continues to see massive influxes of migrant labor who are vulnerable to abuse,” the report states.
As in numerous previous reports published by international human and labor rights organizations, key problem areas are highlighted as the recruitment process, which creates “debt bondage” for many workers, as they have to take out large loans to pay for their passage to Qatar.
They then have to stay in the country to pay off the debts, often under poor living and working conditions.
Domestic staff are also vulnerable to exploitation, as they are not protected by the country’s labor law and many face maltreatment and abuse from their sponsors.
Migrant fishermen, mostly from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines are another group of workers who can work in conditions which may be described as forced labor, the report adds.
It welcomes steps already taken or in the works by Qatar’s government to implement reform, including prospective changes to the kafala (sponsorship) system, the introduction of paying workers’ wages by bank transfer, the midday working ban during the summer months and spot checks on recruitment agencies to ensure they are complying with the law.
Qatar’s government response is rated as “CCC”. Despite its relative wealth, the report states that Qatar and other countries with high GDP per population, such as Japan, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong, “can and should be doing more to address modern slavery problems within their borders.”
It makes more than a dozen recommendations for reform, at a government and business level in Qatar.
- Creating an independent reform commission, allowing workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining;
- Including domestic workers in the Labor Law;
- Establishing a minimum wage for domestic staff; and
- Change the legislation around absconding to ensure that workers who flee abusive or exploitative situations are not criminalized.