Plight of migrant workers: ‘Facts’ and numbers obscure the truth
Are 4,000 workers going to die in the construction of the World Cup-related projects? Are only 1.2 million low-income workers affected? No, millions more are affected. Migrant rights are neither about statistics nor about football, and definitely can’t be ensured by alienating a country, writes Aakash Jayaprakash.
The issue of migrant workers in Qatar and the region is not simple. It is a complex beast – one influenced by history, politics, culture, law, socio-economics, and human rights, amongst others. To define the issue solely within the boundaries of human rights, or any other single field is a grave injustice and would only lead to a simplistic understanding of a vast problem.
Over the past few months, many detailed reports and analyses have come out regarding issues of migrant workers in Qatar. Amnesty International’s report on Qatar was launched, the UN Special Rapporteur investigated issues in Qatar and countless media outlets have covered this important topic. Amnesty’s report had brought to the surface details, and issues that were previously not understood well enough. The findings were backed with documented evidence and detailed interviews, which led to a well-received and effective report. The UN Special Rapporteur had released some his findings, also based on a number of important meetings and research conducted on the ground.
Unfortunately other international organisations and journalists have not followed the same kind of rigour in their investigations of the issue. Too many misconceptions, inaccuracies and unfactual details are unfortunately present in much global coverage. At a bare minimum, to conduct effective advocacy on this issue, one needs to have the necessary knowledge about it and appreciate the complexities involved. To not do so is risky, and owing to the nature of the issue would do more harm than good.
Is the State of Qatar completely to blame?
The problems often begin in the sending countries of workers – much before they set foot on a plane, or lift a hammer at a construction site. The primary moment commonly involves an unscrupulous recruitment agent who offers a high-paying job to a family man. A promise of riches is made, and a hope is sold for a few hundred dollars in India, Nepal or another source country of migrant workers. He sells his land, his mother’s jewellery, his daughter’s gold to raise the necessary funds to pay this amount. Why should he be worried when he has signed a contract that offers him QR2500, a nice room, food and transport? He should be able to make up the cost of his recruitment in no time. This fee or bribe, he pays is usually significantly higher than the legally mandated fee of $328 in India or $716 in Nepal, and he rarely is given a receipt. He is excited and ready to move to Qatar for a new life and means to support his family.
The Qatar government has significant responsibility in dealing with this issue, but it is definitely neither exclusively, nor primarily their responsibility. The visas that all migrants use to enter Qatar need to be approved by the employer and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But it will be very challenging for the Qatari government to effectively monitor the behaviour of recruitment agents in remote villages in Asia and Africa. Articles 28 to 36 of Qatar’s Labor Law clearly outline the conditions for recruiting from abroad. They legally require employers to use only licensed recruitment agencies, and that workers are not to pay for their recruitment. They are also to not assign work different from what he or she was recruited for. Every sending country needs to ensure that their citizens are better treated abroad, than solely relying on them for remittances to contribute to the country’s GDP. For instance, India is the world’s largest remittance receiver and Nepali remittances contributed to 22% of the GDP in 2010.
Are Qataris and the kafala system to blame?
With all the international and local coverage on the issue, it is concerning that Qatari citizens are being demonised, along with the country. The assumption is that because of the kafala system and company ownership, Qataris are complicit in the exploitation of workers if a company is implicated in a labour violation. While it is true that they hold legal accountability as the sponsor on paper, the onus is on them to ensure that the entire company supply chain is run ethically. Unfortunately, there are plenty of companies that have Qatari sponsors on paper, but they may be barely involved in the management. Chances are, the exploitative manager is from one of the countries that provide cheap labour. While it is the sponsor’s primary responsibility to ensure that all his employees are being treated well, in accordance with the labour law and with dignity, in practical terms this is difficult to do with hundreds of employees in a company, and with multiple businesses to sponsor. The issue with the kafala system is that it burdens the sponsor as well as the employee with rules and regulations that are very challenging to implement.
As I had written earlier, the kafala system is not necessarily inherently bad, and historically arose out of noble values. However, over time the system has become increasingly inappropriate for the realities on the ground. It now adds more tools of potential exploitation: Exit permits and transfer of sponsorship being at the mercy of the employer. There are many documented instances of Exit Permits being used as a blackmailing tool by employers who forced workers to falsely sign documents saying they had received all their wages. In reality they had been unpaid for many months, and had reported the violation to the authorities who had ordered the company to compensate the workers and repatriate them.
An oft-repeated figure is the 1.2- 1.3 million blue collar migrant workers in Qatar who are being negatively affected. I would argue that the real number is about 3.6 to 4 million lives that are being affected.
Are 4,000 workers going to die in the construction of the World Cup-related projects?
It needs to be understood that international organisations all approach this issue from different perspectives, and agendas. Numbers are a powerful way to convey a message, but as the saying goes: There are lies, damned lies and statistics.
One needs to be careful while reading statistics. For instance, this much reported number comes from extrapolating the number of Nepali and Indian deaths in Qatar for the first half of 2013. While the Guardian report specified the numbers of death amongst the Nepali community, the causes of death were not exclusively construction related. They also definitely were not all World Cup related. At its heart is a lack of reliable data on the causes of death, as these figures are not being shared by the respective embassies. And where information is available, the causes themselves are unclear and usually marked as cardiac arrests… even for men in their 20s. More research is necessary to accurately quote such figures. The second leading cause of death are road traffic accidents, followed by suicides. Of course, if a road accident occurred when the person was waiting for his transportation to or from work, then it must be classified as a work accident. It rarely is. It is the responsibility of the employing company to provide the worker with a safe and secure area to await his transportation back home.
Then there are the numbers that are understated. An oft-repeated figure is the 1.2- 1.3 million blue collar migrant workers in Qatar who are being negatively affected. I would argue that the real number is about 3.6 to 4 million lives that are being affected. After all, these migrants are not here for themselves, but to support their children, wives, parents and relatives.
Why are all migrant worker issues tied to the World Cup?
For some reason, every migrant worker death in the country tends to be associated with the World Cup or the infrastructure surrounding it. For a start, none of the actual World Cup stadia construction has begun. So to claim that workers are dying while building stadia for the World up is disingenuous. However, it is true that development of infrastructure related to the World Cup is underway. There is a need for accurate figures to be documented to understand how workers are being affected on those sites.
Every one of these deaths is a tragedy and a blemish on the country. The issue of migrant workers in Qatar is not a new one, and certainly did not start on December 2, 2010 when the World Cup was awarded to Qatar. When international organisations start campaigning against Qatar being awarded the World Cup, it is very concerning to me. Not because they are criticizing the country abroad, but simply because I wonder what will happen if their campaigns work. How does taking the World Cup away from Qatar improve the migrant situation? The global spotlight is on Qatar because of the World Cup, and is encouraging the country to speed up its pace of holistic development.
This issue has always affected the country, and will continue to do so in the lead up to the tournament. Hopefully, substantial steps will be taken by then, and brave choices made to create real positive change. World Cup or not the issue must be resolved regardless of the tournament or international pressure.
Sadly, much of global coverage on the issue of migrant workers in Qatar would also include descriptive phrases like “…an undemocratic system of governance”, “rich and wealthy state”, “Arab exploitation of modern day slaves”, “largely affluent and lazy population…” etc. Upon closer critique of such articles, it is apparent that the writers themselves, or their institutions, are quite orientalist in their outlook. For some reason, it is unfathomable to them that this part of the world is capable of hosting a World Cup or addressing human rights issues effectively. After all, the region is still very ‘third world’ and possess ‘under-developed’ mindsets. Let us not forget that most of these writers live in nations with a grim history of exploitation, and have had about 150 years headstart in their national development processes. Their selective amnesia disregards generations of colonisation, and the impacts they have had on the development of nations and peoples worldwide.
Large international events like the World Cup will force a young country like Qatar to transform quickly in a short span of time. The issue is so vast, however, that it is relatively easier to build a metro and rail network from scratch, and construct new cities on barren land. It is a lot more challenging to execute an effective and comprehensive solution to the extremely complex issue of migrant workers in the country.