Labour Demand Puts Qatar in a Quandary


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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While most Qataris would probably say that last year's US-led invasion of Iraq had little impact on their country's booming, gas-fuelled economy, it has made for major changes in at least one area - the labour market.

The relocation of the US military central command (CENTCOM) from Saudi Arabia to the country last year may be partly responsible for this. The arrival of this major facility gave an important boost to Qatar's non-oil industries - and to labour-intensive areas such as construction and services.

Following the pattern seen in other Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, much of the unskilled and semi-skilled labour involved in these sectors has been drawn mostly from India and Pakistan, followed by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. As the diaspora publication Little India says of Qatar in its February 9 issue, "now that the US armed forces are making it their home... the demand for labour is growing."

Yet much of this labour is also unregistered. As one local banker noted, "There's now a significant population here that's not on the official numbers list... so there are additional local requirements."

Within India itself, the émigré labour market is concentrated heavily in the south-western state of Kerala, directly across the Arabian Sea from Oman and also the most accessible part of South Asia for the labour-hungry markets of Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Statistics are hazy, but natives of Kerala are believed to account for more than half of the Indian nationals currently working in the Gulf.

Along with historic ties of maritime commerce, this Indian state has a relatively prominent Muslim minority, usually estimated at 20-25% of the population, compared to around 10% for India as a whole. According to workers in Doha, the Qatari government shows a preference for Muslim applicants in seeking to fill unskilled or semi-skilled industrial or service jobs. One impoverished district, Malappuram, where Muslims form the majority, "sends most of its young men to work in oil-rich Arab countries", according to a recent Inter Press Service news agency report.

Kerala's economy, much like those of the Gulf, has come through the recent war unscathed. This was not the case in 1991, when thousands of expatriate labourers returned home from the conflict zone, causing a loss of remittance payments as well as a heavier unemployment burden. Today, a more pressing concern in Kerala is an ongoing labour clampdown in the UAE, which is trying to prevent migrant workers from settling or retiring on its soil. Sooner or later, similar issues are bound to arise in Qatar.

Already, Doha's cab drivers - a mix largely of Keralans, Bengalis, Afghans and Yemenis - fearfully anticipate the removal of their orange and white, independently operated cars from the streets within the next six months. The government has decided to replace them with a door-to-door limousine service, contracted out to one or two private companies, as in Dubai. Registered taxi owners - all Qataris - will reportedly be paid QR125,000 (about $45,000) per vehicle as compensation, while about one-half of the current taxi drivers may be hired to drive limousines. The remaining drivers, however, could be out of luck - unless they want to do construction work.

Economies throughout the six-country GCC performed better than expected in 2003, buoyed by rising oil revenues. Political unease aside, confidence in Iraqi reconstruction is evident in new infrastructure investments, which some analysts have compared to the oil boom of the 1970s. Qatar, for its part, has the added bonus of the North Field, containing some 900 trillion cu feet of offshore natural gas, known about for 30 years but only recently being opened up for commercial exploitation. The expected revenue is already being leveraged to build world-class education and athletic facilities - the country is in a frantic rush to get ready for the 2006 Asian Games, which it will host.

All this means more demand for labour, which puts Qatar in a quandary. The tiny emirate's population has more than doubled since 1985, largely as a result of labour migration from South Asia. More strikingly, Qatari citizens still number only 120,000, less than one-fifth of the current total. The New York-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch puts the number of foreign workers in Qatar at 615,000 - slightly above other estimates, but close enough to give a clear picture.

The government promises to "Qatarise" the energy and industry sectors by replacing skilled expatriates with qualified locals. European consultants, ironically enough, have been brought in to analyse and document existing jobs at Qatar Petroleum (QP), the centrepiece of the state oil and gas establishment. "Wherever possible, we will continue to employ those high-performing expatriates in new business developments and expansions," said QP Chairman Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, who also doubles up as the energy minister.

But locals would not - and to be fair, could not - replace the hundreds of thousands of unskilled South Asian migrants who hold more menial jobs. With GDP growing at around 10% per year, labour demands are bound to increase further. "More work," said columnist Julie Flint in the Daily Star (Beirut) last month, "means more migrant workers. And more economic opportunity means more international scrutiny."

Human Rights Watch has urged Qatar, along with other GCC states, to ratify (and comply with) the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, also known as the Migrant Workers Convention (MWC). Under the agreement, countries are supposed to extend the same wages and health protection to foreign workers as to nationals. Qatar's government, while insisting that the Sharia already ensures sufficient recognition of workers' rights, agreed on the need for "combating and punishing international smugglers of migrants and protecting the victims of this unlawful activity".

The MWC was adopted by the UN General Assembly as long ago as December 1990 (in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait), yet only last year did it finally get its 20th ratification (Guatemala), thus making it international law. The only two Arab states that have signed it - Egypt and Morocco - are significant labour exporters, as are practically all other signatories.

But with the convention now officially in effect, the Gulf states are hardly alone in holding out. "Not a single major industrialised country has ratified the MWC," Flint wrote. "Not one."

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