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[OPINION] DLA Piper’s Qatar report based on a flawed premise; Need for foreign workers is not temporary

[OPINION] DLA Piper’s Qatar report based on a flawed premise; Need for foreign workers is not temporary
Vani Saraswathi

Qatar’s need for foreign workers is not temporary; it’s long-term (and probably a permanent one) and yet, the DLA Piper report and Qatar’s labour law amendments seem to ignore the fact.

It chooses to see and treat foreign workforce temporary solution to a transitory problem.
While fact is, Qatar is amongst the hundred-odd countries that is heading towards zero-population growth.
The DLA Piper report based on which the recent changes to Qatar sponsorship system were announced on May 14, is now publicly available (by Engineers Against Poverty).
The report, commissioned by Qatar, undertook “an independent review of the legislative and enforcement framework of Qatar’s labour laws in the light of numerous allegations made regarding the conditions for migrant workers in the construction sector”.

A law for all, built on study of just construction sector?

The report sticks to its brief and does not go beyond ‘accepting on face value’ what’s ‘alleged’ in Amnesty and HRW investigations on Qatar. And to counter each of the allegations it gives a list of recommendations. There is nothing new that it adds.
As for its recommendations, it has neither set a clear timeline or suggested strong enough changes. These are the recommendations that Qatar has followed almost to the ‘T’, including shifting responsibility of exit permits issuance from the employer to the Ministry of Interior.
Much has already been said about Qatar’s announcement of an announcement, and how it doesn’t go far enough. The lack of clear timelines is worrying, too.
The report addresses the concerns of low-income migrant workers who at 1.39 million make up the majority of the population. It does not refer to the other half a million migrants, many of whom are of higher economic status. It does not speak at all of those not covered by the labour law.
But the change in labour laws is going to affect all foreign workers in Qatar, of all skill levels and economic status.
However, there is something more fundamentally flawed in both the government’s stand on migrant workers and the report’s cognizance and acceptance of it. Here is the portion from its executive summary.

“The majority of the migrant workers in Qatar are in the country at the Government’s invitation […] Our understanding of the pattern of migration flows into Qatar is that Qatar’s labour needs are fulfilled by migrant workers on the basis of short to medium term employment contracts, and there is no intention on the part of either the migrant workers or the State of Qatar for those migrant workers to permanently settle in Qatar.”

These are the major concerns with this stream of thought, especially when it informs all the subsequent decisions.

  • The definition of short or medium term is not clear. There are those who have lived and worked in Qatar for several decades that are still treated as ‘temporary’ solution to human resource problem. Most construction projects last for 3-5 years at the minimum. Is that short or medium?
  • What about highly-skilled workers, whose continued understanding of the economy, and hence their experience, is a must for long-term growth?
  • As per demography experts, Qatar is never going to have enough citizens to make its economy tick without foreign workforce. President of Global Migration Policy Associates Patrick Taran highlighted this issue of demographics and treatment of migrant workers, while speaking at the People’s Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights earlier this month in Stockholm.
  • Some 127 of 224 recognised countries and political territories are at or well below zero population growth fertility rates (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2127rank.html). Qatar is amongst these countries.

As Taran explained, 2.2 children per woman is considered the ‘replacement rate’ of zero population growth, below which population will decline.
That being the case it seems extremely shortsighted to see the presence of foreign workers as a temporary one. The need for foreign labour – skilled or otherwise – will not go away. Not even when all the infrastructure for 2022 is built and the World Cup is done. Not even when the 2030 goals of Qatar National Vision is met.
The main criticism against the DLA Piper report from rights organisations is that having made a good analysis of the problem, the recommendations are not at well drawn out, and do come across as a bit of a short-term bodge.
As for using the construction sector as a casestudy to clean up the entire labour law system means many other vulnerable groups are left out of it. To a degree one can draw out from the construction sector highly systematic problems (denied exits, NOCs etc). However the large number of workers who are excluded from the labour law (domestic workers, farming, fishing and hotel sectors) are not covered in the DLA Piper report.
A rights activist feels “the really deep, wide crisis right now is for low-income workers, they are the ones arriving in multitudes without proper protections in place. So that is where the urgency is. But if serious reforms were made to kafala, that would have positive knock-on implications for professionals / people on higher salaries, no? It would prevent the Zahir Belounis saga, for example.”

The promise of social justice

The Qatari constitution is clear on social justice, and equality before the law. It also says “The employee-employer relationship shall be based on the ideals of social justice and shall be regulated by the Law.”
The Constitution also provides that the State shall respect international charters and conventions, and shall strive to implement all international agreements, charters and conventions to which it is a party.
And in the case of migrant workers, it has to work closely with the governments of countries of origin.
But we have seen that the countries of origin have not been too strong in protecting the interests of it emigrants (including in the recent UPR of Qatar).
Taran touched upon this in his talk. “The real world manifestations of development contending with rights are profiled by some governments that have lauded their migrants as ‘heroes’ yet manifested a willingness to sacrifice protection abroad to ensure market access. Anecdotal evidence suggests that certain Gulf states effectively impeded ratification of migrant workers rights instruments by Bangladesh and Indonesia for more than a decade with the threat of closure of their markets to labourers from those countries if they ratified. It appears that other destination countries have exercised similar ‘market-based’ pressures, albeit more subtly.”
If Qatar is committed to social justice, it should not look at its migrant workers from a development perspective alone. And it should do that regardless of how things are in sending countries. This can’t be achieved by treating its foreign workforce (of whatever skill level) as a stopgap arrangement. Because nowhere in the foreseeable future can it survive without them.

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Comments

  1. Longtime Qatar Resident

    I agree with your observation that Qatar’s need for foreign workers is not temporary; it’s long-term (and probably a permanent one).

    I would like to recall former Petroleum Minister Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah’s speech at a function where he told the Corporation’s vast majority of expat staff not to worry about losing their jobs even when an aggressive Qatarisation drive was on. He made it clear that QP may offer jobs to nationals, but it will not be at the expense of the expatriates.

    It implies that:

    1. Whatever may be the in-take of nationals, expatriate employees are always required.

    2. The level of commitment to work, even from professionally qualified Qataris, in most cases, do not match that of an expatriate, who would be required on a permanent basis.

    If this is the situation at the white collar and professional level, it goes without saying that Qatar need to depend on migrant workers in a whole lot of other areas, for ever. Do you think Qatar will ever have nationals working as cleaners, tea boys, drivers, housemaids, barbers, petrol pump attendants, newspaper and gas cylinder delivery boys, sandwich makers, to name but a few categories?

    Coming to professionals, will they ever have enough nationals qualified to work as doctors, engineers, professors, journalists, accountants etc. No.

    So Qatar’s need for foreign workers is permanent. I think the steps they have announced recently are temporary (with an eye on 2022 World Cup).

    The summary of the DLA Piper reports says, “there is no intention on the part of either the migrant workers or the State of Qatar for those migrant workers to permanently settle in Qatar.” This not completely true.

    It’s true that the State of Qatar has no intention to give permanent residency to the migrant workers, but there are many migrant workers (especially from Pakistan, Bangladesh and even some from India and also some Islamic and Arab countries) who would accept permanent residency and even citizenship if it is offered to them.

    In fact when I came to Qatar, in 1996, it was Resident Visa that was stamped on my passport, but within 2-3 years it was changed to work visa. It was then interpreted that this was done to deny one a chance to claim citizenship based on the fact that he/she was a resident for a certain number of years. This also made it clear that I am here on work and the moment my work is over I have to leave the country.

    You are absolutely right when you said, “That being the case it seems extremely short-sighted to see the presence of foreign workers as a temporary one. The need for foreign labour – skilled or otherwise – will not go away. Not even when all the infrastructure for 2022 is built and the World Cup is done. Not even when the 2030 goals of Qatar National Vision is met.”

    I don’t see any hope for the poor labourers even if the new recommendations are implemented. Holding an employee’s passport is against the (existing) law, but many companies are doing it under one pretext or the other. Which worker will dare to complain? And even if he has the passport with him he cannot leave the country without an exit visa!

    Do you know that boys above the age of 15, under father’s sponsorship, need to get an exit visa if they’ve to travel? I have to go to the airport immigration office and apply for one every time my son travels. The existing law makes him a suspect, as if he’s going to run away with my money!

    I know companies where people are forced to work for 12 hours a day (without overtime allowance) and made to work even on Fridays (with nominal overtime). Who is thinking about workers’ welfare? You tell me how many companies in Qatar have proper HR department? Even if the recent recommendations are made into law, what’s the guarantee that it will be implemented?

    May be workers who come here on specific World Cup projects may get slightly better living conditions, but the vast majority of those who are already here, and those coming for other projects, may still be offered the same pitiable conditions that exist.

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