From the TUC

Striking workers in Qatar find labour laws finally working – against them

28 Nov 2014, By

If you ever needed proof of Qatar’s one-sided refereeing, this is it

The reason “Play by the Rules” is one of our ‘Playfair Qatar’ campaign demands is that Qatar could make life better for its 1.5m migrant workers so easily: it could apply the laws designed to protect them as rigorously as it applies the laws designed to control them. As the Gulf state crushes striking workers standing up for their rights, it’s time they cracked down on the real problems.

Qatar already has plenty of labour laws. While we’d like to see a few more, it would certainly help if it ever held employers to account for breaking them. Many of the appalling abuses facing workers in Qatar are already technically illegal but, as the UN’s workers’ rights agency, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), confirms, Qatar has been singularly ineffective about turning this into decent protection against forced labour. For example, earlier this year the Qataris announced that the fine for the offence of confiscating a workers’ passport – the fate of around 86% of all migrant workers – would now be five times higher than the previous amount. Since not one single employer has ever been prosecuted for this widespread practice, however, this still amounts to zero. In short, employers are unlikely to be looking over their shoulders as they exploit their workforce.

This week, however, Qatar has qualified for inclusion on a list of the world’s worst refereeing decisions. Qatar’s critics, watching carefully for signs that the country’s system of labour laws ever actually functions, have been stunned by the swift and firm action carried out by Qatar’s authorities to deal with an appalling example of workers being paid  unfairly low rates – by arresting the workers.

Despite taking no action when one of the site supervisors apparently started hitting the striking workers with a piece of plastic pipe, police dutifully enforced laws against workers taking action in their own defence, and carted 100 of them off to prison. Despite Qatar’s membership of the ILO (which means they are supposed to honour the right to join a union), any kind of action by workers to challenge their employers is illegal – starving, entrapping, maiming and killing workers through negligence won’t get you into trouble, but try creating an impromptu union to do something about it and watch the hammer of justice fall.

Like so many construction workers in Qatar, these strikers had been paid only a half of what they had been promised when they signed on to work in the Gulf. A month’s salary is therefore around £105, coincidentally the same as the fee should the workers have tried to take the case to the labour courts even though – again – Qatar’s law says they should be exempt. Having been effectively forced into taking action, these workers are finding that Qatari law can be implemented with surprising speed when it suits employers, but seldom the workers.

The only upside for the arrested workers is that Qatar looks likely to deport them quickly, perhaps because their employer is happy to see the back of them. The country grants huge powers to employers to control their workers’ right to leave the country, a law that is the subject of a long-awaited reform to stop workers being trapped against their will. But the workers will return home still saddled with debts to the recruitment agents that – again illegally – charged them to arrange employment in Qatar.

“Qatar’s brutal disregard for migrant workers is on display once again. The ‘labour reforms’ promised by the authorities add up to nothing, and FIFA, the athletics body IAAF, multinationals and others which are getting a free ride on the back of modern slavery in Qatar should be ashamed to be in league with a dictatorship like this.” Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary

As Qatar issues promises that it will fix its “human problem” (“we have emotions, we feel bad”, they plead) by bringing in the change to the exit visa rules, it still can’t quite bring itself to confirm a timetable more specific than “the next few months”. Having started this process in May this year, this creeping approach to reform looks set to take a year to happen at best, which at the current casualty rates will likely mean almost 500 workers will have died between the promise and delivery of change.

The rapid suppression of workers demanding fair wages shows that Qatar is more than capable of enforcing its laws. If it wants us to believe that it is serious about change it needs to use its existing laws to protect workers, not to attack them. No-one trusts a referee that only blows the whistle against one side.


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