The Gulf crisis that erupted in early June, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain announcing an immediate restriction of relations with Qatar, more recently has turned into a very public war of words, with political arguments being played out through satellite TV channels and newspaper opinion pages.
The restrictions imposed have seen families from across the Gulf separated, students thrown off courses and governments ordering their citizens to return home. The measures have drawn widespread censure for violating people’s rights from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
But one of the most striking shifts generated by the crisis is the sudden interest governments and institutions from across the region have developed in the welfare of migrant workers in Qatar.
For years, NGOs and trade unions have been almost lone voices in highlighting the plight of workers in Qatar as preparations for the 2022 World Cup take shape. Now, as Qatar’s neighbours seek fresh angles with which to target their political adversary, migrant workers’ rights has emerged as a particularly promising avenue.
“Qatar ‘still silent’ on British man’s death while working on World Cup stadium,” ran the headline of an article published by Al Arabiya—the UAE-based and Saudi-owned satellite channel in June. Bahrain’s news agency, meanwhile, was quick to report that Qatar had cancelled “all workers’ annual leave” in July and a briefing on the 2022 World Cup by the U.S.-based Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee highlighted “Qatar’s ‘modern day slavery’ of construction workers.”
The hypocrisy of these governments and the media and public relations outfits that cheerlead them is pretty jaw-dropping. This is the same UAE, let’s remember, where conditions for migrant workers have been described as “an international scandal” by the International Trade Union Confederation. The same Saudi Arabia that last year saw tens of thousands of unpaid migrant workers stranded in conditions so appalling, that the Indian government resorted to flying in food supplies and airlifting workers home as if there had been a natural disaster or a war. And it’s the same Bahrain that the U.S. State department recently reported has made “minimal” efforts to investigate and prosecute hundreds of reported labor violations.
Given that the “kafala” sponsorship system exists, with varying levels of harshness, in each Gulf state, Qatar is hardly unique in treating workers poorly. Indeed during the current crisis, there are real fears for migrant workers stranded in Saudi Arabia and separated from their Qatari employers, as a result of Saudi Arabia’s decision to close the countries’ border without notice.
But the trouble for Qatar is that while criticisms aimed at it by its neighbours may be dripping with double standards, they are not fundamentally “fake news”.
Forced labor is indeed rife among migrant workers in Qatar. The government has made no serious moves to investigate and address the large number of unexplained deaths among the young, mostly South Asian, men who are building the country’s infrastructure.
And since the Gulf political crisis blew up there have been credible reports of foreign workers on some oil and gas projects in Qatar being denied the exit permits they need from their employers to leave the country. There are also serious concerns about how rises in food prices and the uncertain economic situation generated by the crisis will affect migrants.
Instead of seizing the opportunity that the increased scrutiny the World Cup has brought and vigorously reforming its version of the notorious “kafala” employment system, Qatar has put its energies into a public relations effort aimed at rebranding the same old system—falsely claiming in December last year that “kafala” and the exit permit had been abolished.
This sluggish, defensive response of the government to legitimate criticism over migrant rights is a gift to Qatar’s rivals, allowing them to politicize and exploit the very real suffering of migrant workers for their own means.
In his first public address since the crisis began, the Emir of Qatar thanked the country’s non-Qatari residents for their solidarity and acknowledged their contribution. The best way he could demonstrate this gratitude is by finally respecting their rights.
There are some indications, judging by the UAE state news agency’s reporting, that Qatar’s rivals may choose to target Qatar at the International Labour Organization (ILO), which in November will consider whether to open a Commission of Inquiry into Qatar’s failure to effectively address forced labor. Such a move would be a huge blow to Qatar’s claims to the world that it is addressing the human rights of migrant workers.
The eyes of the world are on Qatar. The opportunity for the government is obvious, if it wants to prove its critics wrong.
Seek support from the ILO to agree a genuine and bold package of labor reforms, including really overhauling the “kafala” system so that migrants can no longer be trapped by their employers. Launch a transparent investigation into the causes of worker deaths and put in place measures to address these. And ensure that in the current political crisis, the rights of migrant workers are protected with the same vigor and intensity as those of Gulf citizens.
If the government takes the other path, of continuing to promote hollow reforms, then migrant labor abuse will be the gift that keeps on giving for Qatar’s political opponents.
James Lynch is deputy head of global issues at Amnesty International.