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Labour Denied Its Fruits

Labour Denied Its Fruits

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Published by Vani Saraswathi
A shortened version of this appeared in The Hindu Businessline. Link here: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/features/life/article3653986.ece?ref=wl_features
A shortened version of this appeared in The Hindu Businessline. Link here: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/features/life/article3653986.ece?ref=wl_features

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Published by: Vani Saraswathi on Jul 20, 2012
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12/08/2013

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Labour kept from its fruits
Between Asian Dreams and Qatari Reality 
By Vani SaraswathiIt's not really news, but it's finally official. Qatar's treatment of more than half itspopulation
most of whom are from the sub-continent 
violates a long list of human rights, and is now the subject of a recent report by Human Rights Watch.No one in Qatar is greatly startled or surprised by what the report has to say,because it's difficult to ignore the plight of the men who build our homes, towers,malls and parks. It's difficult to ignore the slums called labour camps where theyare expected to live, or turn a blind eye to how they are forced to spend their freetime in small grassy patches in the middle of bustling commercial districts. Why?Because they are not allowed to go anywhere near where the privileged live andplay, even if they were instrumental in its construction.It wouldn't be far off the mark to call this system of segregating the labourersfrom the rest a form of apartheid. Entertainment complexes are to be built in the'Industrial area', away from the city, for the exclusive use of these labourers. Thegovernment is keen on moving 'bachelors' away from residential areas of the citywhere families live. Doesn't matter that the only bachelors they are concernedabout are the ones from the sub-continent and certain parts of North Africa.
Exiled to the ghettos
Migrant workers make up 94% of Qatar's workforce.Nationals (Qataris) make up only 15% of the total population of 1.7 million
thelargest citizen to migrant ratio in the world
with Indians making up the singlelargest group at 24%. More than half the population is from the subcontinent.Here are some other numbers to chew on: Nepali 16%; Filipino 11%; Sri Lankan5%; Bangladesh: 5%; Pakistani 4%; other (non-Qatari) Arab 13%; others: 7%.The government is careful and desists from using overtly racist terms. Theirconcern it seems is more on the skewed gender ratio. Of the 1,699,435 (April2012 census) people living here, 1,284,739 are Male and only 414, 696 female.Hence the attempt to keep the 'bachelors' out of malls, places of entertainment,residential areas. Who is going to call the bluff, when sensitive cultural and/orreligious rationalisation is in play.With that background let's get back to the HRW report: Building a Better WorldCup, Protecting Migrant Workers in Qatar Ahead of FIFA 2022.
 Anything for kick-off 
There you have it. The World Cup. That not so distant goal Qatar would reachwith ease and grace if only people stopped complaining.The blighted human wont is to complain, and complain some more, till we areheard. Since those who are wronged against are without a voice, so it falls whollyon those of us who can (without impunity even) to do so.In this case, interestingly, those at the very top seem to see the wrongs, but forfear of repercussions (the richest country in the world is still very tribal in it'sthinking and internal politics) are seeking voices other than their own to put pressure on the private sector to clean up its act.The same week as the HRW report was made public, Al Jazeera English
that 'beacon' of media freedom in the region
for the very first time sought to criticise
 
Qatar's labour policies. One programme was done in Kerala where a former Dohaexpatriate spoke of his horrendous stint here. Another was on the patheticconditions in labour camps in the outskirts of the capital.It seems staged. Al Jazeera after all has been here for over a decade. Its premiseswere built by these very workers; Its staff frequent the malls into which laborersare disallowed. That Al Jazeera never spoke of the plight of the majority in Qataris no oversight.Consider this: Some weeks ago the Advisory Council approved a media law that is yet to receive the Emir's blessing, with which it would become the law.This proposed law allows for criminal penalties against journalists who criticisefriendly countries or matters pertaining to national security.The Doha Centre for Media Freedom which criticises the lack of freedom in everycountry it can spot on the atlas, doesn't have much to say on this proposed law.It's precisely this kind of hypocrisy that opens up Qatar to a lot of internationalscrutiny and criticism, despite admirable investments it has made in its citizens.It's also why we wonder about the timing of the HRW report and the Al Jazeerafeatures.Is this the only way the private sector and the community can be influenced orforced to clean up its act? After all those who violate basic human rights stand togain the most from construction contracts.
Football to the rescue
Was this report done on the behest of people at the very top, in the country?Author of the HRW report Priyanka Motaparthy dismisses this theory."The government did nothing to initiate the report, we had no conversationswith them until after we had begun research in Qatar. We saw the World Cup2022 as an opportunity to raise the issue of migrant workers' rights as we haveelsewhere in the gulf."But HRW is keen on providing the government the tools with which it canchange the prevailing impasse."Previous world cups gave workers' unions a leverage to fight for and ensuretheir rights. "Local law makes it impossible for workers involved in World Cupconstruction to engage in collective bargaining and push for better protections,as workers in South Africa and Brazil
hosts of the 2010 and 2014 World Cup
did, gaining wage increases and improved health and safety provisions," theHRW report states.The International Trade Union Confederation (see www.ituc-csi.org/qatar.html)has been running a sustained campaign against Qatar's labour policies, andplacing pressure on FIFA to take responsibility for the choices it makes.In November 2011, after a meeting with the International Trade UnionConfederation (ITUC), Jerome Valcke, secretary-general of FIFA, said:
“FIFA
upholds the respect for human rights and the application of international norms
of behaviour as a principle and part of all our activities.”
 Human Rights Watch wrote to FIFA on May 10, 2012, to inquire about steps FIFAhas taken or plans to take in keeping with its human rights commitments, thelatest report says. But no response was received till the time the report wasfinalized for publication.We have the report, now what?After the release of the report, I spoke to Motaparthy who is based in Cairo.
 
"The country has some of the most restrictive sponsorship laws in the PersianGulf region, leaving migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.Forced labor and human trafficking remain serious problems," she writes in thereport.The single largest sector, construction, employs more than half a millionworkers, and the HRW report focuses on their plight.Though the government did co-operate with Human Rights Watch duringresearch, the response post-publication seems lukewarm."Both the interior and labour ministries presented their positions and sharedvarious policies that are currently in play and those in the pipeline, during theresearch phase. So did some of the organisations like Aspire Logistics, New DohaInternational Airport and Bechtel who are involved in construction related to theworld cup," she says.While these companies say they ensure laws are adhered to, they say they haveno legal control over, and can't be held liable for, third party contractors whoviolate the law.This is why independent monitoring is critical, says Motaparthy.
 All's fair in business and profits
So what next for the half a million-plus constructions workers? Your guess is asgood as mine."After the release of the report the government has made it clear that it won't rush policy change, especially in the case of the
Kafala
system (see point 6 inreport highlights)," says Motaparthy.Again, no surprise. Over the last couple of years Prime Minister and ForeignMinister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani has said in various forums both inthe country and abroad that the sponsorship system has no future, and that it will have be scrapped. And with that the exit permit system and holding of passport (which though illegal is still prevalent).On the other hand, the Qatar Chamber of Commerce and Industry (QCCI) hasbeen adamant that the sponsorship system (and the related human rightsviolations that it promotes) has to be maintained, to 'protect' the businessmen.In fact, the day after the HRW report was made public, in an interview to a localdaily, QCCI Vice-Chair Mohamed bin Ahmed Tawar Al Kuwari defended thesponsorship and exit permit systems."...an employer brings a worker from overseas, provides him hands-on trainingto do a specific job and makes him skillful, so he has the right to retain him,"Kuwari said, adding: "It is not right on the part of a foreign worker to ask forsponsorship change because he owes his job and skills to his employer."Criticisms on the living conditions of the labourers were baseless, he said.Not even an acknowledgement that there might be a problem that needs redress.Just absolute denial."It is the only country apart from Saudi Arabia, in the region, that retains theparticularly burdensome exit permit law. UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain have allmade some reforms to the
Kafala
system. It's an irony that Qatar, whichsupported human rights and pro-democracy movements in Libya and Syria hasyet to address the major human rights problem in its own country," points out Motaparthy.

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