Qatar implements new reforms to labour rights

 

Qatar, like many Gulf nations, has seen its labour requirements soar in the wake of rapid economic development and a spate of construction and infrastructure projects. With less than 300,000 Qataris living in a country of some 2.22m people, the nation’s labour force is dominated by expatriate workers, the majority of whom are from Asia. Incomes earned in Qatar represent a critical channel for wealth redistribution, and benefit thousands of families, although human rights and labour law issues have posed a challenge, both for workers and the state.

With the 2022 FIFA World Cup throwing these issues into the spotlight, Qatar has become the de facto face of human rights reform in the GCC region. Although the state has been subject to international criticism concerning workers’ living conditions and restrictive labour laws, Qatar is now moving to implement extensive reforms, including setting minimum worker accommodation standards, as well as reforming workers’ salary payment schemes.

The National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) has played an increasingly prominent role in the reform process, enacting new standards for workers’ accommodation, announcing plans to join labour camp inspection teams, and assuming a new role as chair of a UN human rights sub-committee, demonstrating the government’s commitment to improving the working and living conditions for labourers in Qatar.

LABOUR DEMOGRAPHICS: The Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics (MDPS) reports that Qatar’s labour force stood at 1.65m as of September 2014, of which 1.55m are expatriate workers. The majority of workers are employed in construction, with MDPS estimating the construction industry comprised 36.9% of the total labour force in 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, representing nearly 550,000 workers. Most of these workers come from Asia, including 545,000 Indians, 400,000 Nepalese and 200,000 Filipinos, with GCC countries including Qatar representing the world’s third-largest migrant labour market globally, according to a 2012 report published in collaboration with the Centre for International and Regional Studies at Qatar’s Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

Qatar’s expatriate labour base is projected to expand substantially in the coming years, and GMA News reported in 2014 that the state has unveiled plans to hire an additional 1m workers as it prepares for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as well as works planned as part of the broader development plan, which entails billions of new construction projects.

LABOUR RIGHTS: Although Qatar does not employ as many expatriate workers as the UAE or Saudi Arabia, the state’s labour rights record has been of particular international interest since it won the rights to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, with non-governmental organisations including Amnesty International and the International Labour Organisation criticising its human rights record, particularly the kafala – or sponsorship – system, under which most GCC countries recruit and sponsor their foreign workers and which, according to the 2012 Georgetown report, has received the brunt of international criticism.

At the same time, private contractors have been criticised for the poor living conditions reported at numerous labour camps nationwide, which have been subject to a number of high-profile investigations by major media outlets in recent years.

A NUMBER OF REFORMS: The state has long acknowledged these problems, and has begun to make major strides in implementing reforms first suggested by law firm DLA Piper, which was commissioned by the government in 2013 to examine channels for labour and human rights reforms. Final recommendations, which were released in May 2014, included setting out mandatory minimum requirements for all public contracting authority construction projects, blacklisting unethical recruitment agencies, establishing a worker complaints bureau and introducing an electronic salary payment scheme, as well as reforms to the kafala system.

NHRC: Qatar’s role as World Cup host has seen the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy assume a high-profile role in labour reforms, however, Qatar’s labour requirements extend beyond 2022; in line with the principles of QNV 2030 a number of construction and infrastructure projects will be completed following the tournament, and agencies including the NHRC are set to play a significant role in ensuring the reform process achieves comprehensive, long-term success.

Set up in 2002, the NHRC is neither a governmental entity nor a civil society institution, but acts as a national-level advisory body, as well as handles workers’ complaints. The NHRC has risen to prominence in recent years, collaborating with various international entities and signing memorandums of understanding with agencies including the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, the Migrant Forum in Asia, and national human rights organisations in Mauritania, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan and Sri Lanka. In recent years, the NHRC has been especially active in promoting improvements to the living conditions of Qatar’s blue collar labour force.

HOUSING REFORMS: Although Housing Law No. 2 of 2007 established minimum requirements for adequate housing, covering all segments of society, a number of construction companies had been found in violation of these standards. In May 2013, the NHRC published new guidelines for labour accommodation in construction sites, in collaboration with the MLSA, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning, Supreme Council of Health and the Qatar Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The rules banned bunk beds and cramped sleeping quarters, stipulating that no more than four workers may be housed in one room at a construction site, with workers allocated a minimum of 4 sq metres of space. The guide also includes mandatory establishment of a clinic with a dedicated doctor and nurse for any company with more than 500 workers, as well as specifications on kitchens, dining rooms, food preparation facilities, water, electricity and sewage systems, and standards for ventilation and air conditioning. The NHRC announced that a guidebook containing all labour regulations would be provided to companies in English and Arabic, with firms given one month to improve if they are found to be in violation of its conditions. These minimum requirements were further codified with the promulgation of Ministerial Decision No. 18 of 2014, which guaranteed all specification related to the provision of decent housing for expatriates, in coordination with internationally recognised standards, in addition to minimum health requirements at labour camps. Camps are now regularly inspected, including surprise inspections conducted by the MLSA’s Department of Labour Inspection, which reported in October 2014 that it had conducted a total of 709 inspections between March and August 2014, and recorded 827 violations.

ONGOING REFORMS: Recent developments have painted a brighter outlook for labourers in Qatar, and appear to be gathering pace in 2015. In July 2014, the Cabinet approved a draft law requiring employers to pay wages directly into an employee’s bank account, with the MLSA later announcing it had shut down 33 construction sites for breaching labour laws, and added over three dozen new site inspectors to its workforce.

Salary scheme reforms were officially enacted in February 2015 with the promulgation of Law No. 1 of 2015, following final approval from Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Lawyers quoted in local media reports have said that this new law will open the sector to further improvement, including reforms to the kafala system.

Less than a month after the salary law came into effect, the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning announced it will form a committee to examine the current and future needs of labour camps in Qatar. The committee will identify best practices for design and management procedures, with plans to formulate a strategy which will enable smooth supply of both temporary and permanent labour accommodation.

The NHRC, meanwhile, announced in March 2015 that it will begin participating in labour camp inspections, and the committee’s growing expertise in the enforcement of human rights standards has seen it receive international acclaim; in the same month, authorities announced that the NHRC would chair a UN human rights sub-committee which provides accreditation to national human rights committees globally. Part of the UN’s International Coordination Committee under the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the sub-committee will organise workshops, seminars and media campaigns to raise awareness on workers’ rights and the specifications of Qatari labour law, as well as distributing pamphlets to workers in their local language, informing them of their rights.

Although the reform process has been arduous, it will brighten Qatar’s international reputation and benefit not only expatriate labourers, but thousands of remittance recipients abroad, supporting a critical channel for wealth distribution which saw 6% of total GDP exit the state via foreign remittances in 2013.

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