New era for workers’ rights in Qatar?

New era for workers’ rights in Qatar?

This is a local story, strangely, as WMHT member Neil Vernon was one of a delegation of trade unionists who went to Qatar to find out more about the stories of exploitation and virtual slavery of immigrant workers building a stadium for the World Cup, amongst other projects.

He spoke about this at a recent Birmingham Workers Memorial Day event.

Now, the International Trade Union Confederation has reached an agreement with the Qatar government in what should turn out to be an end to the kafala system, in which workers from Asian countries lose their freedom, and live and work in appalling and dangerous conditions, with no rights and little pay.

Amongst the commitments made by Qatar are:

  • Dismantling the kafala system, by lodging contracts with the government rather than private employers, to stop those employers' powers to stop those workers travelling, accessing medical treatment, etc
  • Setting a minimum wage as a base rate for all workers, thus ending the race-based system of wages, and improving their Wage Protection System to systematically settle wages arrears

Importantly, this is to include agreements between unions and employers in the sector, proper workplace structures to be in place, and an ILO office to oversee this in the region.

However, many voices of caution have been raised, as Qatar has made promises before which have been broken. This agreement has meant that the ILO has closed its current complaint about this against Qatar. Only time will tell whether this has been a cynical move from that government to clear the way to the World Cup and other public approvals, only to carry on later, more or less as before. Unions and ILO need to move quickly to get the infrastructure in place which is the best hope for the future.

If indeed this does come to mean an end to the kefala system there, this needs to spread to neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, who have the same system. They don't have a World Cup with which to focus the international spotlight, but there are important differences between traditionalists and those who want to interact more with Western countries, so there is potential for this to become a key wind of change on workers' rights and safety. We need to make sure that exposure and pressure are kept up.

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Labour rights in Qatar