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The Qatari crisis will squeeze businesses, but it will hurt hundreds of thousands of vulnerable migrant workers much more
It’s business as usual has been the sound bite from the Qatari Finance Minister, Ali Shareef Al Emadi, during five weeks of regional isolation and economic blockade. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt have severed ties with the country over alleged support of terrorist groups. Saudi Arabia and their regional partners have issued a set of 13 demands against Qatar with looming deadlines, having previously cut all land, air and sea links with Qatar and have urged all “fraternal and friendly countries and international companies to implement the same procedure as soon as possible...”
The crisis will undoubtedly squeeze businesses. But it will hurt hundreds of thousands of migrant workers more. Many now face an uncertain future fearing soaring prices of food and staple goods, unpaid wages, layoffs and destitution if they are shipped back home to countries of origin before they have earned enough to pay off their exorbitant recruitment fees that they paid to seek employment in Qatar.
According to reports, Qatar may be weathering the siege, but the country's booming construction sector is likely to face rising costs and difficulties importing materials and equipment. The blockade makes things difficult for the many international construction firms that have moved in to fill demand since Qatar won the bid in 2010 to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. There is also a significant risk that real estate investment will dry up, which could lead to project delays and a halt of construction and business activities altogether.
This could spell disaster for Qatar’s already vulnerable migrant workers, tens of thousands of whom work in construction and risk being hit hardest and soonest. The crisis highlights, again, that the labour market in Qatar, as in the rest of the Gulf countries, is simply not fit for purpose. It leaves workers powerless, exploited, imperilled at work, and with many of their essential human dignities and freedoms denied.
The Qatar labour market is also one of contrasts: foreign workers outnumber citizens by a ratio of 4 to 1. The Qatari national wage GDP/capita is $83,990, whereas the average wage of a construction labourer has been documented to be as low as $160 a month.
The private sector is almost entirely comprised of migrants, and hundreds of thousands from South Asia, Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa employed in the construction sector are carrying out, from the ground up, the country’s prodigious building boom in preparation for the tournament. An estimated 12,367 migrant labourers are currently employed on FIFA World Cup projects, a number that is set to reach 36,000 by 2018.
All Gulf countries, including Qatar, maintain a form of the kafala system of sponsorship-based employment that, at its worst, facilitates systematic abuse of workers and international labour standards. Under the kafala system, a migrant’s work and residency permits are tethered to their employer, rendering a worker entirely dependent on the sponsor throughout employment. In order to change or leave jobs, a migrant must first seek employer permission in the form of a “No-Objection Certificate,” and in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, obtain an exit permit from their employer in order to leave the country. Equally, workers are prohibited by law from organising to improve their situation.
This power imbalance affords employers, such as construction companies, the ability to confiscate passports, delay and withhold the payment of wages, among other forms of maltreatment. While the Gulf governments, including Qatar, have made attempts at reform, many gaps remain that enables companies and their subcontractors to flout the law’s provisions easily and with little to no penalty.
Our research based on outreach to over 100 construction companies operating in the region revealed a stark gap between a handful of companies taking action to protect workers in these conditions and a much larger group of companies who are failing to prevent abuse of workers.
A lack of safeguards means that a squeeze on construction companies will quickly spread through the company and be passed down to the most vulnerable – the migrant workers, who are in a such a precarious position already. There are worrying precedents for this: last year, amidst falling oil prices and subsequent reductions in state contracts, Saudi’s Bin Laden group laid off 77,000 foreign workers and delayed the payment of their salaries for months.
Construction companies could send wages into arrears, fire workers, fail to pay them their dues and end of service benefits, and assist in preventing workers from leaving the country by retaining passports and failing to approve exit permits in line with kafala policies. By law, companies are responsible for bearing the cost of a migrant worker's travel to and from the host country, but the closing of air space with Gulf neighbours has led to sharp increases in the prices of flights as Qatar has been forced to fly over Iranian and Turkish airspace. These dangers point to the fragmented supply chains in construction that render workers vulnerable to abuse, and the last to be paid, especially in times of economic crisis.
Such measures would render migrants illegal, stranded, and dependent upon the political will of their governments back home to step in and help. The Filipino government has already noted these risks when it partially banned the deployment of new workers to Qatar, and as a result, we might see other source countries follow suit. Nepalese, Bangladeshi, and Indian workers have already expressed fears about potential job loss.
The uncertain plight of these workers highlights the urgent need for the large majority of lagging construction firms to wake up to their human rights responsibilities. The UK Modern Slavery Act has galvanized UK-headquartered firms like Carillion, Laing O’Rourke, Interserve and Multiplex to improve protections for workers along their supply chains, while earlier this year CH2M and Vinci joined three other founding members to launch a global industry collaborative to promote workers’ rights.
As the diplomatic rift continues to breed uncertainty for business and workers, the latest crisis is a reminder that Gulf states should continue their efforts to reform the exploitative elements of the kafala system. In the meantime, unless business steps up, workers will remain vulnerable in the long term and continue to feel the brunt of this crisis.
Phil Bloomer, executive director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
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