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article imageModern Slavery: The Plight of Foreign Workers in Qatar

By J Ocean Dennie     Jan 27, 2011 in World
It goes without saying that Qatar's economy and entire way of life depends heavily on the efforts of foreign workers. Less known, however, are the abuses and rights violations these workers are increasingly subject to. Sadly, no resolution is in sight.
According to 2009 figures from the Qatar Statistics Authority, an astonishing 94 percent of the workforce is non-Qatari. Most of these non-Qatari workers originate from developing countries such as Nepal, India and the Philippines. In recent years, numerous accounts have surfaced of migrant workers subjected to abuse and ill-treatment by their employers. The list of grievances, according to Human Rights Watch, includes complaints of “unpaid wages, excessive working hours, heavy debt burdens from exorbitant recruitment fees, isolation and forced confinement resulting in physical and psychological abuse.” The situation can turn desperate when workers take matters into their own hands, with reports of suicide and murder, and as reported by Amnesty International some 20,000 migrant workers in 2007 simply running away from their employers.
Of the almost 1.2 million documented migrant workers currently employed in Qatar, it is difficult to approximate the full extent of employee mistreatment within this sizable labor force since there is a culture of silence and fear in reporting abuses. Of the cases that do leak out into the media, however, ranging from physical assaults of domestic workers or mental abuse afflicted upon newcomers who are unaware of their rights to generalized conditions akin to slavery, there is definitely some cause for concern, that, given the tremendous wealth at stake, has gone virtually unheeded within Qatar itself.
The underlying causes that have contributed to this situation are similarly difficult to delineate with any degree of accuracy, however, certain trends can be extrapolated and offered forth as factors. Implicit in these factors are quite obvious differences between employer and employee involving national identity, class and language. Laborers hired through recruitment agencies in other countries such as Bangladesh or Nepal, arrive in Qatar with very little understanding of the culture or labor rights in the country. These workers usually originate from uneducated and impoverished classes, lured by desperation into working abroad in order to improve their lives and support family members back home. There is a tremendous sense of honor in accepting such employment abroad. This can be compounded by severe pride where workers frequently lie to their families about their living conditions. With that comes an awful degree of pressure to continue with unfavorable circumstances rather than facing the defeat of returning home empty-handed. Again, this culture of fear is driven by a lack of knowledge on available legal rights, remedies and redress. Workers are often afraid to even raise issues of employer wrongdoing, for in the words of one such laborer, the “company will take action…if they hear I’m talking”, while another worker echoed his concern: “If we make a mistake, we get sent back.”
In addition to inherent difficulties in adapting to a new language, class and cultural conditions, the plights of migrant workers are often exacerbated by the exploitative business practices of recruitment agencies. Grandiose guarantees made in their home countries are often broken when recruiting agents compel workers upon arrival to sign new contracts in a foreign language for much lower wages than pledged back home. Poorly monitored labor recruitment agencies also often overcharge migrant workers, leaving them heavily indebted. Compounding such devious tactics is the frequent practice of Qatari employers who confiscate the passports of non-Qatari workers upon arrival. Since most of the migrant workers arriving in Qatar have never engaged in such an arrangement abroad, they are often unaware of their rights in another country or choose not to exercise them when abuses or wrongdoing takes place.
Recourse to state institutions are limited. Although the National Human Rights Committee has been established to promote human rights within the country and deal with violations, their resources are limited and their services not well publicized. According to Qatari labor law, complaints can be filed with the Labor Department but few such cases ever make it very far. Human rights advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International do not have a strong presence within the country. The Solidarity Centre, affiliated with the AFL-CIO, partners with the National Human Rights Committee to “advance basic rights at work for migrant and Qatari workers through capacity-building programs and cross-border exchanges”. The key is to raise awareness among migrant worker population of the availability of such support, limited as it may be. The question, beyond the scope of the paper unfortunately, is how to effectuate a wider dissemination of knowledge in a legal system that does not afford many rights to the foreign laborer.
The status of migrant workers under Qatari legislation, including both labor and human rights law is not dissimilar to the status afforded illegal aliens. Labor laws offer little protection because of lax enforcement, while foreign embassies of developing countries do little besides offer refuge to their nationals, for fear of jeopardizing the flow of remittances workers send to their families back home. Labor laws in these states are usually in favor of protecting the employer who is a citizen of the state rather than the foreigner who is not, which leaves the treatment and well being of these workers to the will of the employer. What contributes to this employer-biased mindset is that many labor-receiving countries such as Qatar end up tying migrant visas to their employers, making it all but impossible to switch employers when they experience abuse. These countries also exclude domestic workers from the labor laws, leaving them open to abuse with few avenues for redress.
This oppressive system is referred to as 'kafala'. Several Gulf states, including Qatar, have developed and instituted a worker sponsorship system which defines the legal basis for residency and employment of migrant workers. This system was designed to enable the government to regulate labor flow and requires that, in order for migrant workers to receive an entry visa and a residence permit, they have to be employed by either a Qatari citizen or institution . The sponsor then assumes full economic and legal responsibility for the employee during the contract period. The migrant worker can only work for the original sponsor and once the contract is terminated, the employee must leave the country immediately, otherwise, workers are required to obtain the permission of their sponsors in order to leave the country.
In addressing this injustice, Human Rights Watch has called for the reformation of the kafala visa system arguing that “employment visas that tie workers to their employers make it difficult for workers to change employers, even in cases of abuse...workers’ visas should not be linked to employers." Also included in their recommendations was a call to “ensure that migrants have access to justice and support services. Migrants who suffer abuse should have access to shelter, legal aid, medical care, and temporary residence status. Governments should ensure speedy and transparent mechanisms to resolve wage disputes, and they must prosecute cases of abuse against migrants through the criminal justice system.”
The legal rights and remedies available to migrant workers are extremely limited and outlined in Qatar's Labour Law of 2004. At present, there is no comprehensive Human Rights Code protection as exists in most Western nations. Domestic labor law clearly favors the employer but does generally provide that an “employer shall undertake to enable the worker to perform the work and to provide him with all things necessary therefore” under Article 44 of the Labour Law while Article 45 states that an “employer may not ask the worker to perform other than the work agreed upon unless necessity so requires”. Under Article 51, the worker is entitled to terminate the contract before its expiry but only under very limited circumstances. Appeal provisions are similarly limited, requiring the employee, before recourse to a Department of Labor tribunal, to first lodge an appeal with the employer. (Article 64) If a dismissal is deemed in violation of the law, the Department can either annul the dismissal, order the worker to return to work and payment of his wages for the period he was not allowed to work or payment of a suitable compensation. There is no mention in the legislation of the possibility of awarding further damages to the worker. Employers are also responsible under Article 103 for taking “measures capable of securing the hygiene and good ventilation in the places of work”, however, this provision does not extend to the living quarters of migrant workers which have been described as “shocking”. And while Article 118 provides for the establishment of unions referred to as 'Workers Organizations' authorized to take “care of the interests of their members and protection of their rights and their representation in all matters related to the affairs of the work”, The Georgetown Voice noted, however, there are no unions or strikes in the country. Organizers of strikes are summarily deported.
Clearly, as human rights groups have called for, Qatar has an international obligation under I.L.O Convention No.111 which it ratified in 1976 that deals with employment discrimination, affirming that all human beings, regardless of race, creed or sex are entitled to an environment of freedom, dignity, economic security and equal opportunity . In stark contrast, however, Qatar has yet to ratify convention No.143 that deals with the rights of migrant workers.
On the more pressing question, however, of Qatar revamping or even abolishing the kafala system, progress looks grim. According to Migrant Rights, it appears the Qatari Chamber of Commerce has successfully lobbied government to retain this unjust facet of Qatari labor law, despite condemnation that it is outdated, unfair and contributes to the abuse of the rights of migrant workers. At the very least, as suggested in Qatar's newspaper The Peninsula, the situation calls for “waging an awareness campaign by local media with the government's backing to convince companies to provide better wages and safe and hygienic living and working conditions”.
Ordinarily, one might expect that Qatar would be a vanguard when it comes to these issues in the Middle East. In recent years, the country has attempted to champion itself as a progressive state, promoting liberal values. If there is to be any alleviation of the plight of migrant workers in the country, the government must recognize the inconsistency of these unjust policies with the image they are attempting to espouse abroad. Unfortunately, it seems that until there is a surge of domestic or international pressure there is very little the government will do to address this crisis.
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