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Over the past few months, government officials in Qatar are using proposed changes to the country’s labor law as a response to criticism of the country’s human rights record, even though the plans sidestep many key issues raised by observers.

In the last week alone, at least three high-ranking government officials have discussed the upcoming changes while making speeches at international forums that have directly and indirectly noted the abuse of migrant workers in Qatar.

Such cases have been well documented by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Those groups argue that the country’s laws and inadequate enforcement mechanisms enable the maltreatment of migrant workers at the hands of their employers, who are just as likely to be expats themselves.

Last month, local government officials proposed changes to the country’s labor laws in an effort to provide more protection to foreign workers. These include:

  • Loosening restrictions on changing jobs;
  • Shifting the authority to issue exit permits from sponsors to the Ministry of Interior;
  • Raising fines for confiscating passports;
  • Unspecified improvements to living conditions; and
  • Mandating electronic payment of wages to ensure workers are being remunerated, among other measures.

No timeline has been announced to actually implement the proposals, which many human rights observers and local expats have criticized as inadequate.

But at a recent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, two Qatari officials rehashed the proposal in response to comments made by François Crépeau, a special rapporteur who visited the Gulf country last year and formally tabled his findings in April.

“There is no doubt these developments reflect the serious will of the government to improve the conditions of work,” Ali bin Sumaikh al-Marri, the head of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee. “We hope to see on-the-ground improvement in the rights of citizens and residents.”

The proposals do address some of Crépeau’s concerns, such as non-payment of wages, living conditions and passport confiscation. While Crépeau did say he “welcomed” the news that Qatar is looking into reforming its sponsorship system, he raised many issues that have yet to be directly tackled by the government, such as:

  • Illegal recruitment fees paid by migrants in their home countries that put them in debt prior to arriving in Qatar;
  • Migrants assigned to work lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs than what they agreed to in their home country;
  • Abuse of domestic workers; and
  • A prohibition that prevents expats from organizing into unions and collectively bargaining.

The discrepancy between Crépeau’s comments and Qatar’s proposed changes was not raised at last week’s hearing.

Also speaking at the UN, Sheikh Khaled bin Jassim Al Thani – the director of human rights department at Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – thanked the special rapporteur for his visit and report without mentioning any of its contents, beyond saying the government agreed with Crépeau that labor-sending countries have a role to play in protecting the rights of their citizens who travel abroad for work.

Al Thani continued:

“The protection and promotion of human rights, including the rights of expatriate workers is a strategic choice for the state of Qatar. Indeed, Qatar values expatriate workers’ contribution and considers them real partners in its development.”

Doha Dialogue

Several days after the conference, the Qatar Red Crescent hosted a three-day, “Doha Dialogue on Migration” workshop and seminar, attracting dozens of delegates from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent.

The forum had a global, humanitarian focus on improving the dignity of migrant workers and acknowledged there are problems in the region.

“Of course, the Gulf areas have certain challenges. We have a huge population (and a) big number of expat workers,” said Dr. Mohammed bin Ghanem Al-Ali Al-Maadheed, the president of the Qatar Red Crescent, during a speech.

In an interview, Al-Maadheed conceded that kafala can present a problem, but said improving the lives of migrants is a much broader issue that goes beyond the country’s sponsorship laws.

However, other local speakers returned to the topic.

The session’s moderator called Qatar “a model” for its proposed legislation and then introduced Dr. Abdullah Salah Al Khelifi, the country’s minister of labor and social affairs.

He spoke of the country’s “desire to protect rights of workers and their livelihood” before outlining the proposed changes to Qatar’s sponsorship laws.

Later in the day, delegates heard from Nayef Al-Shammari, a legal specialist with Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee. He too went over the proposed legislative changes, telling the audience that the UN’s Crépeau had commended the government’s measures.

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“Malicious, fabricated and false foreign press reports” concerning the welfare of low-income expats in Qatar are the result of “political conspiracies,” Hussain Al Mulla, Undersecretary at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, has told the Al Raya newspaper.

Responding to widespread international criticism of the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar – particularly laborers from Nepal – Al Mulla said that Qatar’s reputation is “a red line:”

“We refuse any skepticism in the keenness of the state to respect laborers’ rights, and its ability to provide adequate housing and a safe working environment.

We proved with numbers and documents that the number of Nepalese laborers’ deaths does not exceed 15 from more than 400,000 Nepalese labors working in many projects in the country, from which they transfer amounts of money to their countries that exceeds $1 billion annually.”

Al Mulla was responding to a report last month in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, which included interviews with Nepali expats here about their poor working and living conditions.

The report suggests that the alleged “slave labor” abuses raise serious questions about Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, as many of these young men are working on projects related to the games.

Representatives from Qatar and Nepal held a press conference in Doha last week to refute the allegations. Narendra Bahadur Bhat, coordinator of Non-Resident Nepalese Association (NARA) Middle East disputed the number of Nepali deaths reported in the Guardian, which totaled 44 workers between June 4 and Aug. 8.

The government has also hired international law firm DLA Piper to investigate the Guardian’s allegations, the Peninsula reports.

Advisor to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs Ali Ahmed Al Kholeifi said that when the report is completed, the ministry will “decide on an appropriate course of action,” adding that “Qatar takes its international obligations very seriously.”

Labor law changes

Despite denying the findings of the Guardian’s report, Al Mulla confirmed to Al Raya that the government plans to amend parts of Qatar’s Labor Law to comply with requirements set out by World Cup organizers.

He also pointed out that the labor law already includes severe penalties for any company which violates labor rights, and added that the ministry plans to increase the number of inspectors by 100, from 150 to 250, to help enforce these laws.

Mulla’s interview tallies with comments made by Minister for Labor and Social Affairs, Abdullah Saleh Al Khulaifi, who has also announced a renewed commitment to law enforcement, including hiring more translators and setting up more branch offices of the Labor Department in areas of high concentration of workers, such as the Industrial Area.

Meanwhile, a delegation from an international labor federation has arrived in Doha to carry out an assessment of laborers’ working and living conditions, AFP reports.

The visit of a team from the Building and Wood Workers’ International Federation was planned before the Guardian published the results of its investigation.

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Credit: Translation by Amin Isaac; Photo by Penny Yi Wang

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