By James M. Dorsey
A decision by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to abandon plans to adopt a unified contract for domestic workers increases pressure on Qatar to significantly revamp its controversial labour regime in a bid to fend off efforts to deprive it of its right to host the 2022 World Cup. It also highlights the pitfalls Qatar and other Gulf states have encountered in tinkering with their labour systems amid mounting international criticism.
The GCC’s failure to agree on a unified contract for domestic workers, the most vulnerable group operating under the controversial kafala or sponsorship system, comes as Qatar braces itself for a debate on reform of world football body FIFA at the European Parliament on January 21 hosted by British parliamentarian Damien Collins, a critic of the integrity of Qatar’s World Cup bid, that could potentially generate more negative headlines.
It also comes against the backdrop of a recent warning by Theo Zwanziger, the FIFA executive committee member tasked with monitoring reform of the Qatari labour regime, that Qatar has yet to show progress and risks being deprived of its right to host the World Cup at FIFA’s congress in May.
Zwanziger said Qatar needs to establish by March 10 an independent commission to monitor its labour reforms to avoid the risk of losing one of the world’s foremost mega sporting events. The creation of the commission was one of numerous recommendations made by a Qatar-sponsored review of its labour legislation by British-based law firm DLA Piper.
Charges by migrant and labour rights activists that the abandonment of a unified contract reflects a lack of sincerity on the part of Gulf countries goes to the heart of mounting impatience among human rights groups and reflected in Zwanziger’s comments that Qatar is not serious about revamping, if not abolishing, its kafala system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.
“Since the draft contract first emerged in early 2013, GCC states have eschewed transparency and avoided accountability through purposefully ambiguous rhetoric. The refusal to release drafts of the contract prevented civil society and other stakeholders from providing valuable perspectives and input that help to ensure the comprehensiveness of reform,” Migrant Rights, an NGO focused on migrant worker rights in the Middle East, said in a statement. The group noted that activists favoured a unified contract “because it could provide for a much-improved baseline for all domestic workers.”
The group cautioned that a “unified contract would not have been a panacea; it is not a substitute for inclusive labour laws, and it does not resolve the deep-rooted issues that traverse migrants’ experiences, such as deceptive recruitment or obstacles to accessing justice. But the unified contract represented a critical intermediary step towards more complete legal reform”. It charged that “each year GCC states recycle the same promises for domestic worker reform, and each year the changes actually implemented are marginal at best… The failure of the Gulf states to implement meaningful reform, and their deliberate obscurity and incoherence in doing so, evidences the low priority accorded to protecting domestic workers and other migrant labourers”.
Qatar has been slow in acting on pledges it has made as well as recommendations in a slew of reports published by the United Nations, trade unions and human rights groups in recent years. Qatari officials have announced changes to its labour law and regime that have so far fallen short of the demands of activists and the recommendations made in the various reports.
In addressing the labour issue, which has emerged as a potentially greater threat to Qatar’s World Cup hosting rights than allegations of wrongdoing in its successful bid for the tournament, Qatar is caught in a Catch-22. It needs to respond quickly and decisively to international demands for reform but gradually and carefully to alleviate widespread fear at home.
Many Qataris, who constitute a mere 12% of the tiny Gulf state’s population agree that migrant workers’ working and living conditions need to be improved but fear that granting rights to foreigners would threaten their grip on their culture and society. Implicit in the fear is the realisation that there are no solutions to Qatar’s existential demographic problem that would ensure continued dominance of Qatari culture and Qatari control of their society and politics.
That fear has in effect prevented Qataris from taking a number of steps that would not endanger their rights and position as citizens but would have gone some way to demonstrate sincerity and maintained credibility with the Gulf state’s critics. Such steps could have included adopting as a nationwide model standards and contracts drafted by the Qatar Foundation and the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy that go a far but non-controversial way in improving workers’ living conditions, and massively rather than incrementally boosting the number of labour inspectors monitoring compliance with Qatari laws, rules and regulations.
Qatar’s failure to take such steps has undermined a key goal of its sports strategy: the building of soft power as a pillar of its defence and security strategy. Qatar’s image, tarnished by the labour issue, is further on the defensive by allegations that it turns a blind eye to funding of terrorism, a charge the Gulf state has strenuously denied, and its support for Islamist groups, prominent among which is the embattled Muslim Brotherhood.
While deeds rather than words will be needed to repair reputational damage, Qatar has not been helped by a seeming absence of an effective communications strategy that has opened it to criticism by parties with a vested interest, including some of its Gulf partners and Israel, as well as opponents of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup.
Qatar appears to be banking on pledges by world football body FIFA president Sepp Blatter in contradiction to Zwanziger’s comments that only an earthquake could deprive the Gulf state of its World Cup hosting rights. With Blatter under increased pressure because of his management of multiple corruption scandals and FIFA’s lack of transparency and accountability, that assurance could over time prove to be less ironclad.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title