Migrant workers' meeting. Photo BWI
Unions are looking up in the slave state of Qatar
GMB International Officer Bert Schouwenburg has just returned from a visit to Qatar with Building Workers International. This is what he found.
I was last in Qatar with the ITUC nearly two years ago in December 2013 and in that time little would appear to have changed. There are more (empty) tower blocks, more roads and some World Cup infrastructure under construction but the kefala system is intact and the majority of around 1.5 million migrant workers still live and work in appalling conditions. On the first day I was in the Kingdom, I visited a labour camp used by a Carillion sub-contractor and it was the same depressing spectacle of ten beds to a room, primitive catering facilities and inadequate sanitation.
The Qataris are not immune to criticism and legislation has been introduced to at least modify kefala by allowing some movement between employers, though this will not take effect for a year. And while we were in Qatar, the ILO Governing Body in Geneva was getting ready to send a high-level investigative mission to see for themselves how out of line with international labour standards the slave-state is.
Freedom of association and collective bargaining are still regarded as alien concepts. That was reinforced in a meeting with the Supreme Committee for the Delivery and Legacy of the World Cup when it was put to the President of the body that they were wasting their time if they thought that workers’ welfare committees and a limited system of auditing would do anything to improve the exploitation of foreign workers in construction. We were told that new ‘Labour Cities’ were being constructed to house the influx of migrants but there would be no cooperation with our delegation to allow us onto the premises or onto any other sites because of the pending case at the ILO. Once that is settled, they told us, access may be granted. We did see one huge new multi-storey camp from the outside that, allegedly, had 70,000 places.
A significant development is the formation of a Qatar branch of the Philippines’ Federation of Free Workers in Doha. The new organisation is recognised and accredited by the Filipino Embassy. At an impressive and historic ceremony on Friday, 6 November, attended by the BWI delegation and some 120 workers, the Ambassador was present to witness what can only be described as the birth of trade unionism in Qatar. There are some 200,000 Filipinos working there and the BWI has supported a team of organisers and trained para-legal people who have already achieved results in contract disputes. There is no reason why the union should not grow rapidly with the continued backing of the BWI.
In addition to the Filipino initiative, a South Asian workers’ association has also been formed but is of a more clandestine nature. The latter community is not as cohesive as their Filipino colleagues and there are apparently differences related to nationality and caste that will have to be resolved. The reaction of the Qatari authorities remains to be seen and will doubtless depend on whether or not the nascent unions develop to the extent that they can mount a challenge to the status quo.
In the short term, there is unease amongst the Qataris about the future of FIFA and if it completely disintegrates in the next few years, they could be left with a veritable herd of white elephants in the shape of football stadia and infrastructure that would be completely useless.