A New Standard for the Gulf States

Oliver Miles

Last November, the International Labour Organisation closed its case on a complaint about working conditions in Qatar. Reforms meant that some two million workers now enjoyed better protection. ‘Qatar has set a new standard for the Gulf States,’ the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation said, ‘and this must be followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE where millions of migrant workers are trapped in modern slavery.’ In April, the ILO inaugurated its project office in Doha, its first in the Gulf, to support a programme on working conditions and labour rights in Qatar.

About 25 million people in the six Arab Gulf states, around half the total population, are expatriate workers, accompanied in some cases by their families. Many of them work in disgraceful conditions, near to slavery. Besides slum accommodation, unlimited working hours, often appalling heat and frequent denial of wages, they are subject to the kafala (‘guarantee’) system which means that they are not allowed to change jobs or leave the country without the agreement of their employer, who has almost unlimited power over them.

For several years international pressure has been concentrated on Qatar, not because conditions there are different from those in the other states but because it is to host the football World Cup in 2022, and the vast construction required is in full swing under constant media attention. According to the ITUC, 1200 workers have died on the project. The figure probably refers to deaths on this and other projects over three years in a workforce of 1.4 million, but is still shocking.

Last year Qatar announced it would abolish the kafala system. It claims that much work has been done to improve labour conditions in a joint working group with the Building and Wood Workers’ International. The working group met six times in 2017 and reforms so far include health clinics and welfare forums to hear workers’ complaints. The secretary-general of the BWI says that Qatar has shown it is serious about ensuring a safe and healthy working environment.

Even if the political will to change is as strong as is claimed, just what these developments mean for expat workers in Qatar is not clear. The Qatari media suggests that the kafala system is still operating.

The home countries of the expat workers (including India, Pakistan and other countries in south and south-east Asia) traditionally support the system, which is a major foreign currency earner, but they have become increasingly sensitive to the issue of working conditions. ‘Despite progressive labour laws,’ the Mumbai-based First Post reported last month, ‘over 600 stranded Indian workers continue to face rights abuses.’ Indian workers for HKH, a company owned by the Qatari ruling family, claimed that their work permits had not been renewed (which meant they had no access to medical facilities, for example) and they had been paid no salary for five months. ‘Migrant rights activists said that they were surprised to learn about the 1000-odd workers employed by HKH being stranded despite the pro-worker reforms.’ An Indian social worker based in Qatar is quoted: ‘How did the system fail to pick the unpaid and delayed salary cases of the HKH workers? Secondly, why was justice delayed or denied to the workers? Thirdly, why is the Kafala system still in practice when Qatar claims to have removed it?’

Qatar is also exposed to criticism because of the campaign against it led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which has included a physical blockade and threats of military action but also a propaganda campaign to which Qatar has responded in kind. Last month, al-Arabiya (which is Saudi owned) picked up a report in the Catholic newspaper Crux. Following a report presented to Pope Francis by an NGO in 2017, a Vatican foundation wrote to the president of Fifa asking for information about accusations of slavery in Qatar. Al-Arabiya upgrades the letter, presenting it as sent by the pope himself, and goes on to quote Human Rights Watch allegations that ‘migrant construction workers … are working under life-threatening heat. This has caused hundreds of workers to die due to heat exhaustion.’ As if nothing like that ever happened in Saudi Arabia.

Neither Qatar nor its critics are short of money, and they spend it freely. One witness told a court that a Fifa official was paid at least $1 million in 2010 to vote for Qatar to host the World Cup. The Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski was paid £15,000 last year to organise and speak at a ‘Qatar Global Security and Stability Conference’ organised by the emirate’s enemies; the conference was also attended by Iain Duncan Smith, Paddy Ashdown and John Simpson.

Although there has been some progress on labour reform, the announcement of a ‘new era for workers’ rights in Qatar’, and especially ‘a new standard’ which ‘must be followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE’, seems premature.


  • 12 June 2018 at 9:16am
    Stu Bry says:
    If the UK or any other western government was serious about this issue they would be sanctioning any company which is involved in labour abuses in the Gulf and elsewhere.

    I won't hold my breath.