Last month the International Labour Organization (ILO) closed the complaint lodged in 2014 by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) about Qatar’s failure to protect the rights of migrant workers in accordance with international law. The ILO decision was based on Qatar’s agreement to a three-year technical cooperation program involving the ILO, the Qatari government’s commitment to amend its laws and practices to comport with international labor standards, and a commitment to finally reform the kafala sponsorship system that compounds the exploitation of migrant workers who collectively pay billions of dollars to get jobs in Qatar.
The ITUC has been in the vanguard campaigning for change in Qatar. Like other civil society organizations working in the region, Verité cautiously welcomes the establishment of the technical cooperation program and promised reforms. It remains to be seen whether they result in real progress toward respecting the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work of migrant workers in Qatar. Effective implementation of appropriate measures to address root causes of the pervasive labor abuses endured by migrant workers will be key.
Reports indicate that the recently announced program will target issues such as wage discrimination and payments, passport retention, contract substitution, and restrictions on workers ability to leave the country. If meaningful changes are implemented, these measures, in addition to the government’s commitment to a minimum wage and real reform of the kafala system, will certainly improve the lot of migrant workers in Qatar.
The Importance of Focusing on Recruitment Practices
Workers will continue to be exposed to the risk of forced labor however, unless the unethical and illegal recruitment practices that facilitate the movement of almost two million foreign migrant workers to Qatar are adequately tackled. The charging of recruitment fees and expenses to migrant workers is the most significant contributor to the shameful ongoing presence of debt bondage, human trafficking, forced labor or ‘modern slavery’ in global supply chains, including in Qatar. Verité recommends that the ILO technical program and Qatari reforms specifically, and meaningfully take on the issue of recruitment fees and expenses that are transferred to workers in source countries by complicit employers in Qatar via their foreign recruitment agents. To pay these bloated costs, that can amount to thousands of dollars, workers often must take out loans at exorbitant interest rates, which makes them vulnerability to debt bondage – the most prevalent form of forced labor.
A 2014 report on Migrant Labour in the Construction Sector in the State of Qatar by the international law firm DLA Piper, on behalf of the government of Qatar, acknowledged that employers in Qatar know these recruitment costs are borne by low-skilled workers in violation of Qatari labor law. The Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) is the government of Qatar entity charged with delivering the infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar™.
In April 2017, the SC’s Annual External Compliance Report of the SC Workers’ Welfare Standards found that employers on its projects who pay the costs of recruitment remain ‘the exception rather than the rule’ – a clear violation of the SC’s Worker Welfare Standards, and by extension Qatari law, as this means those costs will almost certainly be passed onto workers. Indeed, the SC compliance report also indicated that ‘Seventy-nine percent of all workers interviewed reported having paid recruitment fees.’ The compliance report focuses on contractors’ efforts to reimburse migrant workers that can produce ‘receipts’ for fees they paid instead of contractors’ express obligations to pay all recruitment costs. This, of course, is a thinly disguised avoidance mechanism, since expecting workers to provide receipts for unethical and illegal fees they were charged is unrealistic. These abuses will persist unless contractors are held accountable for paying all the costs associated with recruiting and deploying foreign migrant workers to Qatar, and ensuring their recruitment agents act legally and ethically – including not charging fees to workers.
The Role of State Procurement and Contracting Practices
The irony of this situation is that because the State of Qatar, through entities like the SC, the Qatar Foundation, and others, is the ultimate client or owner on infrastructure projects in Qatar, it has significant leverage and could dramatically remediate these non-compliances through its procurement practices, if the will is there. Virtually all employers working on major projects in Qatar are contracted by a government entity. Each of these State entities have sophisticated procurement and contracting functions that impose onerous contractual terms and conditions on contractors (employers) including the submission of performance bonds or bank guarantees. These instruments act as an additional layer of assurance for the performance of the contractor’s obligations. If failure to discharge the obligation to pay all recruitment costs is structured or designated as a material breach of the underlying contract that could trigger a call on the performance bond or bank guarantee, contractors’ will be far more likely to comply because of the potential financial consequences.
If accompanied by modest but impactful changes in procurement practices, the ILO technical program and Qatar’s commitment to genuine reform could be game-changing for migrant workers’ rights in the country and six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council region more generally. Many organizations in and outside Qatar, stand ready to support earnest efforts to implement meaningful change.
For more information, please contact Declan Croucher.