Football and human rights – a Qatari blend

by Alexandru Giurgilă, Engagement Manager at GES

It is estimated that 3.2 billion people tuned in to see at least one minute of the football matches at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The event generates such impressive audiences by building up on the passion for the sport that in some countries is considered practically a religion. Yet the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, although only happening six years from now, has already managed to capture the public eye not thanks to the increasing passion for football but due to the working and living conditions of the migrant workers building the infrastructure for the event.

Around 2.5 million people live in Qatar and 90 per cent of them are foreigners. Their status is regulated by the so-called Kafala system (Arabic for ‘sponsorship system’) which requires all migrants to have a Qatari sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status. Under this system, the migrant workers cannot change or quit their job and cannot even leave the country without their sponsor’s approval. Kafala has been criticised by human rights organisations for creating opportunities for the exploitation of workers as many of them are abused by their employers with little chance of legal reprimand. This pressured Qatar into reforming Kafala but the changes do not measure up to the expectations of international stakeholders. Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty International, an expert in migrant labour rights in the Gulf area, said on a teleconference organised by GES earlier this year that the Kafala system is fundamentally the same, except for minor improvements and for the fact that its name has changed, with words like Kafala being removed from the new law which will be enacted in December 2016. For example, although this new law creates an appeals system for migrant workers to challenge their sponsor’s decisions not to permit them to exit the country, it is unclear how this would operate in practice. Workers will continue to be required to seek their sponsor’s permission to leave the country or change jobs, and the new law maintains the powerful prerogatives of sponsors that enable a permissive environment for exploitation.

In addition to the Kafala system that migrant workers have to cope with once in Qatar, they face challenges also in their home countries as most of them have to pay huge, often illegal recruitment fees to secure a job in the Gulf country. Many do so by taking on debt and mortgaging their homes, which leaves them with no option but to accept any job when arriving in Qatar, despite being promised better conditions, in order to be able to pay the debts. Despite the efforts of western companies operating in Qatar to recruit workers through systems free of illegal fees, GES has discovered from people with local knowledge that the recruitment companies operating in migrants’ home countries have managed to create the impression among workers that in order to have a good job abroad, a fee must be paid. Moreover, when international stakeholders such as Amnesty point towards the abusive practices of the recruitment companies, the latter have the ability to influence the public debate in their countries to shift the focus towards Qatar as an abusive state.

All these factors create an imbalance between employees and employers and a system that facilitates the exaction of forced labour. Companies operating in Qatar therefore need to pay extra attention to avoid labour and human rights abuses both within their own operations and at the subcontractor level. This kind of abuses not only pose reputational risks but also affect the morale of workers, which could ultimately lead to productivity losses.

The abuses in Qatar have not only been signalled by NGOs but also by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Following a complaint concerning non-observance by Qatar of the ILO C029 Forced Labour Convention, ILO sent a high-level tripartite delegation to Qatar in March 2016. The delegation uncovered issues related to delayed salary payments, contract substitution, passport confiscation and payment of fees to recruitment agencies. The delegation also noted that these problems are more widespread for workers in small enterprises operating at the subcontractors’ level, proving the need for companies involved in Qatar to better monitor their business partners. While recognising the efforts taken by Qatar to curb forced labour, ILO notes that many challenges still remain and it has therefore requested the Government of Qatar to follow up on a list of recommendations by March 2017. Failure to address these recommendations might subject Qatar to a commission of inquiry, ILO’s highest level investigative procedure, launched when a member state is accused of committing persistent and serious violations.

Given all the scrutiny Qatar is facing, the prospects for better times are encouraging. Yet, in order to improve the situation for the over 1.7 million migrant workers in Qatar a collaborative effort is needed. Institutional investors play an important part in engaging with companies and pushing them towards a better understanding of the challenges associated with operating in such environments. GES will continue to closely monitor the situation in Qatar and to engage with companies operating there.

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