Qatar is a nation with a population of less than 3 million and depends on 2 million migrant workers to build its infrastructure.
As the World Cup 2022 date approaches and the completion of Stadia nears, the country is under intense scrutiny again for the alleged mishandling of its labor force.
Thousands of laborers have died over the past 10 years, with a long list of causes including accidental electrocution, blunt injuries due to a fall from a height, and suicide.
Qatar lists most of these unfortunate deaths as “natural”.
And the country is not helping its cause by trying to rescind an important decision to get rid of the kafala system.
Shura Council recommendations on kafala
On 22 February, Qatar’s Shura Council issued a series of recommendations aimed at removing the right of migrant workers to change jobs during their contract; limiting the number of times they can change jobs during their stay in Qatar to 3, and restricting the number of workers in a company that can change jobs to 15% unless agreed otherwise by the company.
If accepted, these recommendations will reverse much of the progress Qatar has achieved to date, and revive the kafala system.
In August 2020, Qatar became the first country in the region to allow migrant workers who fulfilled certain conditions to change jobs without their employer’s permission.
But these changes caused an uproar with some businesses, which argued that the reforms stripped employers of their rights.
Small and medium-sized companies have argued that they risk losing their workforce at a time when they cannot afford to hire new employees, and when travel restrictions mean they are not able to recruit new workers.
But human rights organizations like Amnesty International is finding these proposals alarming, especially with the 2022 World Cup approaching.
They argue that the Qatari government needs to support businesses to transition towards a new model while halting any attempts to backtrack on hard-won reforms.
At least 6,500 workers have died
The Guardian newspaper reports this week that more than 6,500 migrant laborers have died in the course of building seven high-tech stadiums and the infrastructure to support the World Cup.
A recent interview by NPR with Guardian journalist Pete Pattisson revealed that some workers collapsed on the stadium construction site and later died, others died in road traffic accidents on their way to work in a company bus, some committed suicide, while others died suddenly in an unexplained way in their labor camps.
According to The Guardian, 2,711 workers from India, 1,641 from Nepal, 1,018 from Bangladesh, 824 from Pakistan and 557 from Sri Lanka have died working in Qatar since 2010. The Guardian estimates that the actual death toll of migrant workers is “considerably higher” since the data it cites is limited to the listed countries.
“All those workers from five South Asian nations who have died in the past 10 years in Qatar. I would argue the vast majority of them have been involved in low-wage, dangerous, extremely difficult laboring work. But the figure also includes others who have worked in white-collar jobs,” the reporter said.
Hot weather, long working hours, two-hour treks each way just to get to the worksite and back to labor camps where terrible conditions with eight, 10, sometimes 12 men sharing a room, unhygienic toilets, and kitchens, awaited blue-collar workers there, the reported described.
Daytime temperatures in Qatar can approach 120 degrees during the summer.
In a statement to the publication, Qatar’s government didn’t dispute The Guardian’s findings and characterized the death toll as “expected.”
“The mortality rate among these communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population,” the statement read. “However, every lost life is a tragedy, and no effort is spared in trying to prevent every death in our country.”
A WhatsApp service to assist Qatari workers
A new WhatsApp service to provide information on the country’s labor laws and regulations was launched by authorities on Tuesday, in a bid to assist workers to understand their rights.
Set up by Qatar’s Government Communications Office [GCO] and the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs, the service provides information in six different languages, including Arabic, English, Urdu, Hindi, Nepali, and Malayalam.
“We were encouraged by the high numbers of people using the GCO’s Coronavirus Information Service on WhatsApp and saw an opportunity to do something similar for our labor reform program,” the GCO said.
The WhatsApp service is free-of-charge and provides up-to-date information on Qatar’s labor laws, informs expatriate workers about their rights, including where complaints can be made, and answers questions relating to the country’s work policies through different channels.
Those who wish to access the service can add the number +974 6006 0601 to their contacts and then send a WhatsApp message to launch it. It can also be activated through the link provided by the GCO.
Over the past year, Qatar introduced several historic reforms to help quell the concerns of employees in the country as well as concerns by rights organizations over the mistreatment of migrant workers.
Among the main points of discontent was the lack of awareness for workers’ rights, as well as access to relevant authorities to gain insight and make complaints.
The reforms included removing the ‘No Objection Certificate’ [NOC], dismantling the controversial kafala system completely, and providing protection for workers in the country.
Authorities also set a minimum wage of QAR 1,000, which applies to all workers of all nationalities in both private and governmental sectors, including domestic workers.
“Since 2010, there has been a consistent decline in the mortality rate as a result of the health and safety reforms we have introduced,” the GCO statement added, noting there are strict punishments, including jail time, for business owners who violate safety standards or limits on summer working hours.