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article imageQatar's migrant workers are little better than slaves

By Karen Graham     Dec 3, 2013 in World
Qatar's population is growing at an astonishing rate, driven by an urgent need to support an infrastructure development program estimated to cost $220 billion over the next decade. There are 1.4 million migrants in Qatar, 94 percent of the workforce.
Most of Qatar's migrant workers are from South and Southeast Asia. It is estimated that over the next ten years, an additional one million workers will be needed, primarily in the construction sector, and they will have to be male. The plight of the country's migrant workers has drawn worldwide attention to the Arab monarchy lately, and most of it is not good.
Qatar has the highest ratio of migrant workers to their domestic population. With a total population of about 1.7 million people, roughly 1.4 million are migrant workers, mostly unskilled and with little assets.
The main focus of the construction demands is the need to make the capital city, Doha, into a regional and global hub for business, as well as a world-class center for sporting events. Since Qatar was chosen to sponsor the FIFA 2022 World Cup games, the pressure has grown to get infrastructure projects completed on time.
But there is a dark side to being a migrant worker in Qatar. The unwanted publicity over worker abuse, harsh working conditions, and health and safety violations, has led to urgent calls from the world community for Qatar to "reform and uphold it's labor laws."
A delegation from the International Trade Union Confederation ended a four-day fact-finding visit to Qatar on Sunday. In a press release issued after the visit, the delegates said there was, “no improvement in living and working conditions of migrant workers.”
Migrant workers are governed under the Kafala system in Qatar. This means the employer is responsible for a migrant worker's legal status, as well as his visa. The employer is also responsible for issuing I.D.s to the workers, and without them, workers are considered "aliens" with no legal status.
But Human Rights groups have found that employers have learned how to manipulate the system through worker's wages, holding off on issuing I.D.s, and by refusing to give workers their exit visas to leave the country.
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), says migrants come to Qatar thinking they will find a good job, with decent pay, only to discover their pay is being withheld, and they have no rights or benefits.
Burrow pointed out that Qatar has been given the support needed to make improvements in working conditions, but needs to make a real commitment to change. During the delegation's visit, interviews were conducted with the workers, and visits were made to the labor camps.
Based on the interviews as well as on-site visits, the delegation estimates that at least an additional 4,000 workers could die in the camps before the 2022 FIFA games. “Their desperation is multiplied when you visit the labor camps and hear the tales of terror from the poorest and most vulnerable workers forced to sit in squalor,” said Burrow, adding that “international companies should be on notice about the reputation risk of doing business in Qatar without respect for workers’ rights.”
The world turned its attention to the predicament of migrant workers after the release a week ago of French footballer, Zahir Belounis. He was finally allowed to leave Qatar after struggling for two years to get an exit visa. Belounis was granted the visa by his former football club, but had to leave without being paid any of his back wages.
The Qatari Labor Ministry finally responded to allegations of worker abuse, poor living conditions and other complaints, saying there were strict rules governing the paying of wages and working conditions. In their statement, the ministry said: "The ministry enforces this law through periodic inspections to ensure that workers have in fact received their wages in time. If a company does not comply with the law, the ministry applies penalties and refers the case to the judicial authorities."
More about Qatar, Migrants, Fifa, Slavery, Kafala
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