Middle East

Watchdog slams Qatar labour rights record

Human Rights Watch says Gulf state has not made significant reforms despite promises to improve working conditions.
Last Modified: 07 Feb 2013 16:23
Qatar is the first Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim country to be awarded the right to stage football's World Cup [AFP]

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticised the government of Qatar for not following through with pledged labour reforms ahead of the 2022 Word Cup.

At a press conference on Thursday in the Qatari capital, Doha, the international non-governmental organisation said migrant workers in the Gulf state work under a "19th century labour system".

HRW urged Qatar to set a timetable to abolish the sponsorship system - known as kafala in Arabic - which restricts the rights of workers to travel, change jobs and complain about employer abuse.

The group also said that while there is the political will for change, more concrete action needs to be taken to prevent exploitation of workers building stadiums, roads and other infrastructure in the run-up to 2022.

"We need good laws to be enforced, bad laws to be changed and violators to be sanctioned," said Nicholas McGeehan, a Middle East expert at HRW.

"This is the world’s most popular football tournament in the world’s richest country - built on the backs of the world's poorest people," McGeehan told Al Jazeera. "The system was meant to disappear 100 years ago."

Reacting to the accusations, Qatar's 2022 Supreme Committee tasked with organising the tournament said, "The safety, security, health and dignity of workers – be they professionals or construction workers – is of paramount importance."

"We are currently in the final stages of drafting a migrant worker charter that will be implemented on all tournament-related projects," it said in a statement to Al Jazeera. "Our aim is for this charter to be completed and in place by the end of the first quarter of 2013."

"We have actively sought out concrete suggestions on best practices and are evaluating how those can be accomplished."

Improving labour standards

The US-based watchdog has said employers should stop confiscating the passports of migrant workers, and cease requiring exit permits for those trying to leave the country.

The latest accusations come after a "Building a Better World Cup" report from 2012, which looked at the legal issues surrounding the foreign workers who constitute more than 85 percent of the country's 1.9 million population. 

"There’s an opportunity here for Qatar to do the right thing and to show the rest of the world," Silvia Pessoa, a Carnegie Mellon University professor in Doha who studies migrant labour, told Al Jazeera.

Most labourers in Qatar come from South Asian countries such as India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Laws intended to protect workers are often not enforced, according to rights groups.

A study last year by the National Human Rights Committee in Qatar said that most manual labourers earn about $250 per month, and that one-third do not receive their wages on time.  

"If they are not able to even adhere to the minimum basic workers’ rights ... you will see more and more countries who will stop or boycott [them]," said Marieke Koning of the International Trade Union Confederation.

In its World Report 2013 covering 90 countries, HRW focused on global abuses of human rights, including sections about the US prison population, the war on terror and mistreatment of minorities in Europe.

The 665-page report also addressed free speech restrictions in China and details about forced relocation of residents around the Russian host city for the 2014 Olympics. HRW's annual document describes in depth the conflict in Syria, where a brutal civil war has seen higher monthly death tolls than anywhere else during the last decade.


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