Working Changes


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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The sometimes thorny issue of labour relations has been back on the minds of many in Qatar recently, with strikes and calls for reform in the headlines.

Debate has been triggered by a series of protests by construction workers from India, who alleged that they had not been paid by their Qatari employers.

For the second time in two weeks, on September 5, a group of 77 such workers mounted a protest at the Indian embassy, expressing impatience at the lack of a resolution in their case, which has been going on since mid-August.

After initial protests, the Qatari authorities had summoned the workers' employers to appear before the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) on August 29. There, the employers had promised to pay all outstanding wages within a couple of days. Yet, the embassy protestors complained, they had still not received anything over a week later.

Such incidents are not unheard of in the Gulf, where large numbers of low-paid expatriate workers from the Indian subcontinent, South-east Asia and other Middle Eastern countries work in every trade from construction to the corner shop.

Disputes over unpaid wages and poor working conditions have presented the authorities of both the host countries and the countries of origin with a number of difficult problems. Often too, workers who have been fired or left their jobs find themselves in the difficult bind of needing a local sponsor to keep themselves legally in the country - yet having lost or quit their jobs, they sometimes fail to find another and lose their legal status.

Often, the place where they then go is their own embassy, yet there is sometimes little that can be done to repatriate such workers, leaving them in limbo.

The sponsorship requirement also often bonds labourers to their employers, making it difficult for them to refuse poor working conditions.

Tackling this particular problem was exercising minds in Doha recently, with a proposal from the NHRC to allow expatriates to change their sponsor. This comes as a new law on this issue is being put together and debated.

"If a provision to this effect [sponsorship change] is included in the proposed sponsorship law", NHRC Secretary General Ali Sumaikh al-Marri told al-Sharq on September 6, "we can avoid serious confrontations between workers and their employers."

He then said that the problem of strikes could be circumvented "if the proposed legislation defining the relationship between an employer and his workers conforms to international conventions on human rights".

At the same time, there have also been some moves on the diplomatic front that may help avoid future labour conflicts.

On September 7, the Peninsula newspaper reported that the Indian embassy was taking to steps to re-enforce previous practices over the hiring of Indian workers. Under this, no Qatari employer could take on unskilled and semi-skilled staff from the country without embassy approval.

This would, advocates argue, enable the enforcement of the Indian government's black list of Qatari firms with a bad track record of dealing with expatriate workers.

This does not cover many companies as most have good records, but, as the Pakistani Times reported on August 25, India has blacklisted 11 Qatari companies and put 35 others on a watch list for mistreating its nationals working in the country.

The firms reportedly include engineering, construction, contracting and garment manufacturing companies, as well as manpower recruiting agencies.

Meanwhile, the Indian labourers who were protesting at the embassy - and who had been on a five-day strike - have been told that no reprisals will be taken against them.

"No worker who was involved in the strike will be dismissed," an embassy official told reporters.

Clearly, efforts to resolve the underlying problems behind such issues are picking up steam, with the importance of ironing out such difficulties in the labour market being recognised by Qatari and other authorities.

Little conflict is seen either by advocates of a new sponsorship law and the interests of the country's business community.

"We hope that the authorities concerned have sought the opinion of the business community too, on the draft," said al-Marri. "What is needed is that the proposed law should protect the right of the employers as well as those of the workers... We at the human rights committee are not in any way in conflict with the employers and their representative body, the Qatar Chamber of Commerce and Industry."

Weeding out bad employer practices is widely seen as an important part of keeping Qatar competitive - and of it meeting international standards in the country's working life.

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