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Labour kept from its fruits Between Asian Dreams and Qatari Reality By Vani Saraswathi It's not really

news, but it's finally official. Qatar's treatment of more than half its population–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 they are expected to live, or turn a blind eye to how they are forced to spend their free time 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 and play, even if they were instrumental in its construction. It wouldn't be far off the mark to call this system of segregating the labourers from 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. The government is keen on moving 'bachelors' away from residential areas of the city where families live. Doesn't matter that the only bachelors they are concerned about 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–the largest citizen to migrant ratio in the world–with Indians making up the single largest 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 Lankan 5%; Bangladesh: 5%; Pakistani 4%; other (non-Qatari) Arab 13%; others: 7%. The government is careful and desists from using overtly racist terms. Their concern it seems is more on the skewed gender ratio. Of the 1,699,435 (April 2012 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/or religious rationalisation is in play. With that background let's get back to the HRW report: Building a Better World Cup, 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 reach with ease and grace if only people stopped complaining. The blighted human wont is to complain, and complain some more, till we are heard. Since those who are wronged against are without a voice, so it falls wholly on 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 for fear of repercussions (the richest country in the world is still very tribal in it's thinking 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 Doha expatriate spoke of his horrendous stint here. Another was on the pathetic conditions in labour camps in the outskirts of the capital. It seems staged. Al Jazeera after all has been here for over a decade. Its premises were built by these very workers; Its staff frequent the malls into which laborers are disallowed. That Al Jazeera never spoke of the plight of the majority in Qatar is 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 criticise friendly countries or matters pertaining to national security. The Doha Centre for Media Freedom which criticises the lack of freedom in every country 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 international scrutiny 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 Jazeera features. Is this the only way the private sector and the community can be influenced or forced to clean up its act? After all those who violate basic human rights stand to gain 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 conversations with them until after we had begun research in Qatar. We saw the World Cup 2022 as an opportunity to raise the issue of migrant workers' rights as we have elsewhere in the gulf. "But HRW is keen on providing the government the tools with which it can change the prevailing impasse." Previous world cups gave workers' unions a leverage to fight for and ensure their rights. "Local law makes it impossible for workers involved in World Cup construction 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," the HRW 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, and placing pressure on FIFA to take responsibility for the choices it makes. In November 2011, after a meeting with the International Trade Union Confederation (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 FIFA has taken or plans to take in keeping with its human rights commitments, the latest report says. But no response was received till the time the report was finalized 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 Persian Gulf region, leaving migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Forced labor and human trafficking remain serious problems," she writes in the report. The single largest sector, construction, employs more than half a million workers, and the HRW report focuses on their plight. Though the government did co-operate with Human Rights Watch during research, the response post-publication seems lukewarm. "Both the interior and labour ministries presented their positions and shared various policies that are currently in play and those in the pipeline, during the research phase. So did some of the organisations like Aspire Logistics, New Doha International Airport and Bechtel who are involved in construction related to the world cup," she says. While these companies say they ensure laws are adhered to, they say they have no legal control over, and can't be held liable for, third party contractors who violate 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 as good 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 in report highlights)," says Motaparthy. Again, no surprise. Over the last couple of years Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani has said in various forums both in the 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) has been adamant that the sponsorship system (and the related human rights violations 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 local daily, QCCI Vice-Chair Mohamed bin Ahmed Tawar Al Kuwari defended the sponsorship and exit permit systems. "...an employer brings a worker from overseas, provides him hands-on training to 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 for sponsorship 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 the particularly burdensome exit permit law. UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain have all made some reforms to the Kafala system. It's an irony that Qatar, which supported human rights and pro-democracy movements in Libya and Syria has yet to address the major human rights problem in its own country," points out Motaparthy.

HRW contacted countries that are home to these distressed labourers, through their embassies in Qatar who represent these governments on the situation of migrant workers here. What preventive measures could be taken by the governments of India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia? Motaparthy says it's important not to put the onus solely on those countries. "We are keen on following up with the (Qatar) government, and putting pressure till necessary actions are taken." Until then, the hundreds of thousands of Asian workers will continue working here on a wing and a prayer. Sidebar/Box Highlights from the HRW report 1. Law 14 of 2004—governing labor in the private sector—limits working hours, requires paid annual leave, sets requirements on health and safety, and requires on-time wages each month. Neither the law nor supporting legislation set a minimum wage. Workers’ top complaints focused on wages, which typically ranged from $8 to $11 for between nine and eleven hours of grueling outdoor work each day, and were sometimes as low as $6.75 per day. 2. A major barrier to redressing labor abuses is the Kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to his or her employer, or “sponsor.” Migrant workers cannot change jobs without their sponsoring employer’s consent, except in exceptional cases with permission from the Interior Ministry. If a worker leaves his or her sponsoring employer, even if fleeing abuse, the employer can report the worker as “absconding", leading to detention and deportation. In order to leave Qatar, migrants must obtain an exit visa from their sponsor, and some said sponsors denied them these visas. 3. Qatar employs only 150 labor inspectors to monitor compliance with the labor law. According to labor ministry officials, none of these inspectors speak languages commonly spoken by workers in the country and inspections do not include worker interviews. 4. While Qatar maintains a labor complaints hotline, it can only receive complaints in Arabic and English, rendering this reporting mechanism effectively inaccessible to most low-wage workers. 5. The Qatar National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), which handles hundreds of worker complaints, reported that the ministry had denied 80 percent of the NHRC’s requests to transfer sponsorship, though the group had reviewed workers’ cases and in each case determined they had strong reasons for transfer. 6. Local regulations set high standards for workers’ housing, allowing companies to house no more than four workers in the same room, banning the use of bunk beds, and requiring employers to ensure potable water, air conditioning, and proper ventilation in all worker accommodations. Yet each of the six labor camps Human Rights Watch visited housed between eight and eighteen workers per room, all workers slept in bunk beds, and some workers said they did not have drinkable water in their own camp.

(Vani Saraswathi is a journalist based in Doha, Qatar where she has been working for the last 13 years)

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