Qatar: Will the EU take a strong stand on abuses against migrant workers ahead of 2022 World Cup, asks MEP Siôn Simon (S&D) to HR/VP

05 April 2018 – In a parliamentary question published in January 2018, MEP Siôn Simon (S&D) voices concerns over ongoing abuses against migrant workers in Qatar, ahead of the 2022 World Cup. Despite promising reforms announced in 2017, migrants working on the World Cup construction sites continue to suffer abuse and exploitation, under Qatar’s severe kafala (sponsorship) system.

 

The kafala sponsorship system

In the recent years, Qatar has been increasingly relying on a growing migrant workers labour force, approximatively amounting to 95% of its labour force, to support its ambitious infrastructure development programme. Employment of migrant workers in Qatar is regulated by the kafala system, a sponsorship system which ties workers with in-country sponsors, whom they need consent to obtain either a visa, an exit permit or to move to another job. In a 2014 country mission report on Qatar, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of migrants described the kafala system as “a source of abuse and exploitation of migrants [which] should be abolished”.

Most of the booming demand for migrant workers in the construction sector comes from the 2022 World Cup sites, where abuses and exploitation have been rampant. Withholds of salaries, forced labour, and passport confiscations are among the most prevalent abuses, Amnesty International reported. Workers are often unable to leave their current jobs as their employer refuse to grant them an exit permit. At the same time, some are denied by their employers the extension of their residence permits, which puts them in an irregular situation and at risk of being detained. Workers’ access to justice is, by far, limited, and the existing mechanisms to settle disputes between workers and employers are inefficient, points out International Labour Organization (ILO). Overall, workers are often living and working in tire conditions, with insufficient rest times, food and security, on the backdrop of widespread origin-based discrimination.

 

Failed reforms and repeated commitments

In a first symbolic move, the Qatari government commissioned an international law firm’s report to investigate abuses taken in September 2013. Amid multiplying NGOs and UN reports and increased international pressure ahead of its Universal Periodic Review (UPR), Qatar announced reforms to the sponsorship system in May 2014 and again in November 2014. In face of flagrant and continued abuses, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) issued two complaints against the Government of Qatar, in November 2015 and in November 2016. Sweeping aside the “vague promises of Qatar to reform the Kafala system and to shift to a contract system”, the ILO deplored that the government proved inefficient or unwilling to investigate and curb abuses.

A new sponsorship law (Law no. 21 of 2015) was passed in November 2015, and ultimately entered into force in December 2016. But despite minor improvements, it failed to lift the major exploitive characteristics of the sponsorship system, including the need to obtain employer’s permission to change jobs during the contract period and the impossibility to leave the country without an exit permit.

Despite the lack of meaningful reform of the kafala system and ongoing abuses, the EU, in its 2016 Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy, “welcomed” the new legislation which it considered as an “important step in replacing the ‘kafala’ (sponsorship) system with a fully contract-based system”. It further added that it would continue, along with its Member States, to monitor the implementation of the Law no. 21 and the overall conditions of migrant workers in the run-up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

On 8 November 2017, the ILO closed its two complaints against Qatar, launching a 3-year ILO cooperation programme in Qatar and praising Qatar’s renewed commitment to implement “numerous measures […] to replace the Kafala system with a contractual employment relation”. Under pressure by the ILO and facing a possible investigation, Qatar had, indeed, committed to a range of new reforms. In August 2017, the Qatari government had passed the Law No. 13 establishing judiciary Labour Dispute Resolution Committees in order to settle disputes between workers and employers. As many NGOs noted, Qatar could, if such measures were fairly implemented, pave the way to the abolition of the kafala system in the Gulf. In October, Qatari media announced the Government had signed 36 agreements with the main migrant workers’ origin countries to provide basic legal protection for workers. On the 25th, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) declared it had agreed with Qatar on the introduction of a minimum wage, reform of the kafala system and the end of passport confiscation, among other positive steps –stressing nevertheless that “much remains to be done”.

As encouraging as these commitments can seem, this is certainly not the first time Qatar claims to dismantle the kafala system. In the past, such announcements have not resulted in the removal of the sponsorship system’s exploitive elements from Qatar’s legal and regulatory framework. It is also worth noting that in practice, despite improvements, abuses against migrant workers on the World Cup 2022 sites are still rampant; released in February, Impactt’s 2018 Annual Report noted many workers were still working for excessive hours and/or for consecutive days without rest, and were facing contract substitution[1]. Five months after the launch of the ILO programme in Qatar, it’s high time for the authorities to clarify their commitments and implement the reforms without delay.

 

MEP Question to HR/VP

In light of the aforementioned, MEP Siôn Simon (S&D) echoed concerns over the continuing abuses against migrant workers ahead of the 2022 World Cup in a parliamentary question to HR/VP Federica Mogherini, asking the following:

Since December 2010, when Qatar won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup, the country has embarked on massive building projects which have reportedly led to severe workers’ exploitation and poor conditions across the country.

What action will the VP/HR take to ensure that migrant workers’ rights in Qatar are not being violated, as is reported?

Answering to Mr. Sion’s question, HR/VP Federica Mogherini noted that the EU had, within the ILO, voiced on many occasions its commitment to promote human rights in Qatar, as well as the universal ratification of the Forced Labour Convention. She declared that the EU had “taken note of the adoption by Qatar of Law No 13 of 2017”, acknowledged “regulatory improvements by Qatar in relation to job transfer and exit visa under Law 21 of 2015”, and was standing ready “continue supporting Qatar to implement these changes”. She added that the EU would continue to “monitor technical cooperation between Qatar and the Office of the ILO”, in particular with a view towards the abolition of “all discriminatory practices related to the Kafala (sponsorship) system”.

 

While the European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (ECDHR) welcomes the European Union’s commitment to promoting migrant workers’ rights in Qatar, we wish to insist on the importance to press for the effective and urgent implementation of the reforms announced in 2017. The EU must continue to call for improvements in migrant workers’ protection in Qatar, to make sure that this new set of legislative reforms won’t be yet another broken promise.

 

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Written question by MEP Siôn Simon, Subject:  VP/HR — Migrant workers’ rights in Qatar in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, 10 January 2018    

Migrant workers in Qatar have been reported to have been subjected to a wide range of human rights abuses and exploitative practices, including forced labour.

On 23 June 2015, in response to a parliamentary question, the VP/HR welcomed Qatar’s intention to improve migrant-related legislation. On 13 December 2016, the new law (No 21 of 2015) governing the sponsorship of migrant workers came into force, replacing the previous law (No 4 of 2009). Many commentators have doubts about whether these laws represent the reform that many are calling for.

Since December 2010, when Qatar won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup, the country has embarked on massive building projects which have reportedly led to severe workers’ exploitation and poor conditions across the country.

What action will the VP/HR take to ensure that migrant workers’ rights in Qatar are not being violated, as is reported?

 

Answer given by Vice-President Mogherini on behalf of the Commission, 26 March 2018

The European Union (EU) has been following issues pertaining to migrant workers’ rights in Qatar closely, through its Delegation in Riyadh (which is accredited to Qatar) as well as in Geneva (EU Delegation is accredited to the International Labour Organisation/ILO).

Within ILO, the EU has reiterated on many occasions the importance it attributes ‐in Qatar and beyond‐ to the promotion, respect and fulfilment of human rights, as safeguarded by the ILO conventions and other human rights instruments.

The EU has promoted the universal ratification of the Forced Labour Convention. Within this framework, the EU has taken note of the adoption by Qatar of Law No 13 of 2017, which established Workers’ Dispute Resolution Committees, as well as the promulgation of Law No 15 on domestic workers. The EU is ready to continue supporting Qatar to implement these changes.

The EU also acknowledges the regulatory improvements by Qatar in relation to job transfer and exit visa under Law 21 of 2015, as mentioned by the Honourable Member. The EU took note of the decision by the ILO Governing body in November 2017 to close the 2014 complaint concerning non-observance by Qatar of the Forced Labour Convention and the Labour Inspection Convention.

It will continue to monitor technical cooperation between Qatar and the Office of the ILO Governing Body to make sure that critical underlying issues in the complaint are properly addressed with a view, in particular, to put an end to all discriminatory practices related to the Kafala (sponsorship) system, to strengthen labour inspection and to establish representative joint committees.

 

[1] Impactt is the 2022 FIFA World Cup external compliance monitor, screening contractors and subcontractors’ observance of the Workers’ Welfare standards.

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