qatar backtracks on labor rights
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James M. Dorsey |

A recent Qatari decision has led to it backtracking on the minimal improvements the country was making in terms of employment of migrant workers; who account for a majority of the Gulf state’s population. This along with Qatari investment in Russian oil company, Rosneft PJSC, symbolizes the emergence of a new global power structure, the rise of populists in the United States and Europe, with Russia projecting itself as a key player on the world stage.

The message has been diluted for countries like Qatar that were under pressure to clean up their human rights act, in the wake of winning hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup. Now it no longer feels the need to pay lip service to human rights or to the trade union activists clamouring for an end to kafala, the labor sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.

Strengthening political links with Russia

Similarly, the Qatar Investment Authority’s decision to invest $5 billion in Rosneft as part of a $10.6 billion deal, that also involved Glencore Plc, had as much to do with geopolitics as with economics. Qatar saw the investment as a way to strengthen political links with Russia as well as develop new business opportunities.

Read More: Despite Sanctions, Russia Finds Buyers for $11 Billion Stake in Rosneft

The deal was remarkable for a country that uses investment as a tool to forge relations. Russia and Qatar have not been the closest of friends. Russia suspects Qatar of supporting militant Islamist and jihadist groups in Syria and of having done so earlier in Chechnya when Russia was battling Chechen Islamists there. Russian agents in 2004 assassinated Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Russia suspects Qatar of supporting militant Islamist and jihadist groups in Syria and of having done so earlier in Chechnya when Russia was battling Chechen Islamists there.

A statement after a recent phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, as Russian warplanes bombarded Aleppo, said the two leaders had discussed ways to “further promote political, trade, economic and humanitarian cooperation.” The statement made no mention of Syria.

Switching allegiances

This is not to say that Qatar is switching allegiances. Its dealings with Russia are only to hedge its bets in recognition of the bear’s rise and the rise of populists in the West willing to deal with Russia. At the same time, Qatar has said it is committed to investing more than $35 billion in the US over the next five years, including $10 billion in infrastructure. “A significant part of Qatar’s economic portfolio is its robust relationship with the United States,” said Qatari businessman Muhammad Al Misned in a Forbes magazine op-ed.

Qatar’s hedging of its bets comes as it, together with other backers of Syrian rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, suffered severe setbacks because of Russian backing for the Syrian leader and the fall of Aleppo, the rebels’ last urban stronghold. The Russian-backed Syrian advances have left Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia with few good options to shape the battlefield by funding and arming the rebels.

Read More: Wary of Russian Guarantees, Residents Stay Put in War-Torn Aleppo

Kafala, the labor sponsorship system

The rise of Russia and the populists appears to have emboldened Qatar to backtrack on pledges on labor rights. Human rights and trade union activists, had been using the Gulf state’s World Cup hosting rights, to pressures Qatar to undertake reform, if not eliminate the kafala system.

In a move that has undermined whatever confidence existed in Qatar’s sincerity and willingness to work with its critics, Tamim backtracked on the easing of exit visa restrictions for migrant workers, two weeks after a long-heralded law was enacted making changes to the controversial system.

The law introduced an automated system operated by the interior ministry to streamline exit visas and remove the power of employers by taking away from them the right to decide whether a worker could leave the country or not. Tamim overruled the law in early January by stipulating that workers would have to inform their recruiter.

In response, Human Rights Watch charged that “changes to the labor law that took effect in 2016, will not protect migrant workers from the serious abuses that characterize Qatar’s construction industry and other low-paid sectors of its economy. Migrant workers will not be able to switch employers, even if the workers experience abuse, and will still need their employer’s permission to leave the country.”

Tamim overruled the law in early January by stipulating that workers would have to inform their recruiter.

Qatar’s backtracking followed a victory in a Swiss court by world soccer body FIFA that has direct impact on the debate over the Gulf state’s labor regime.

The court rejected a request by the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV) and two Bangladeshi unions that it rule against FIFA’s awarding of the World Cup to Qatar without first demanding assurances about “fundamental human and labor rights of migrant construction workers, including the abolition of the kafala system.”

The court decision coupled with the rise of populists who have less concern for human rights is likely to diminish FIFA’s, already weak, resolve to pressure Qatar to fundamentally reform if not abolish kafala. FIFA president Gianni Infantino nonetheless insisted last month that “we will put pressure, we will continue to do that.”

The turning tide could prompt activists to attempt to step up pressure on Qatar with calls for boycotts. The Washington-based Alliance for Workers Against Repression Everywhere (AWARE) said last month that it was stepping up efforts to persuade travelers from Boston and other US cities to avoid flying on Qatar’s state-owned airline because of what it alleges are human rights violations by Qatar as well as Qatar Airways. AWARE has used billboard ads in US cities serviced by Qatar Airways, op-ed pieces and social media to urge travelers to boycott the airline.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog. This piece was reprinted with permission. It was originally published in the RSIS commentary.

James Dorsey, an award-winning Singapore-based Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and also a columnist for many publications over the years. His career in journalism and consulting has spanned almost four decades and several continents. He has covered ethnic and religious conflict and terrorism across the globe for more than three decades. Over his career, Mr. Dorsey served as a foreign correspondent for among others The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and UPI in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Central America and Washington. He is also the Chairman and Founder of Quest Ltd., which runs a global network of 800 journalists interested in water and sustainable development. Currently, Mr. Dorsey writes free-lance and frequently appears as a commentator on radio and television.

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