By James M. Dorsey
A recently published US State Department report on human trafficking provides Qatar with yet another roadmap to counter World Cup-related international criticism of its labour regime.
The State Department's annual review serves as a warning to Qatar as the clock ticks on an ultimatum by the International Labour Organization (ILO). The ILO last May said that it would establish a Commission of Inquiry if Qatar failed to substantially reform its controversial labour regime.
Such commissions are among the ILO's most powerful tools to ensure compliance with international treaties. The UN body has only established 13 such commissions in its century-long history. The last such commission was created in 2010 to force Zimbabwe to live up to its obligations.
The stepped up pressure on Qatar is the result of a perception that the Gulf state has yet to live up to promises of labour reform made since the 2010 awarding of the 2022 World Cup hosting rights.
Qatar and several of its institutions, including the supreme committee responsible for organizing the Cup, have since then taken steps to counter abuse of a system that trade unions and human rights groups denounce as modern slavery. Qatar has however stopped short of taking steps that would fundamentally reform, if not, abolish the system.
Called kafala, the system involves a sponsorship regime for foreign workers who account for some 90 percent of Qatar's workforce, that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.
Kafala gives employers the unilateral power to cancel residence permits, deny workers the ability to change employers at will and refuse them permission to leave the country. "Debt-laden migrants who face abuse or are misled often avoid reporting their exploitation out of fear of reprisal, the lengthy recourse process, or lack of knowledge of their legal rights, making them more vulnerable to forced labour, including debt bondage," the report said.
The State Department, despite acknowledging that the Gulf state had made "significant efforts," concluded that Qatar had failed to step up its efforts to counter human trafficking in the last year.
The report took Qatar to task on three fronts: the implementation of existing legislation and reforms, its failure to act on a host of issues that would bring the Gulf state into compliance with international labour standards, and its spotty reporting.
The report noted that many migrant workers, despite a ban on forcing employees to pay for their recruitment, continue to arrive in Qatar owing exorbitant amounts to recruiters and at times have been issued false employment contracts.
Qatar's Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs said earlier this month that it had cancelled the licences of two recruitment agencies and had issued a warning to two other agencies regarding violations of the law governing recruitment.
A ministerial committee has recommended the establishment of a committee that would ensure regulation of domestic workers, who in Qatar, like in most Gulf states, are viewed as the most vulnerable segment of the workforce because labour laws and reforms do not apply to them.
The report acknowledged that Qatar had initiated its first prosecutions with the conviction of 11 people charged with trafficking, including ones related to domestic workers.
"Female domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to trafficking due to their isolation in private residences and lack of protection under Qatari labour laws," the State Department said.
The US agency said that many workers continued to complain of unpaid wages. Qatar introduced a wage protection system last November that obliges employers to pay their employees electronically in a bid to ensure that they are paid on time and in full.
The report quoted a 2014 study by Qatar University's Social and Economic Survey Research Institute as saying that 76 percent of expatriate workers' passports remained in their employers' possession, despite laws against passport confiscation.
Much of the roadmap distilled from the State Departments criticisms and recommendations involve measures that the government could take with relative ease. They include:
Creation of a lead agency for anti-trafficking efforts that would replace the Qatar Foundation for Protection and Social Rehabilitation (QFPSR) that was removed as the government's central address, and expansion of the new agency's responsibilities beyond the abuse of women and children;
extending labour law protection to domestic workers and ensuring that any changes to the sponsorship system apply to all workers;
enforcing the law banning and criminalizing the withholding of passports by employers;
providing victims with adequate protection services and ensuring that shelter staff speak the language of expatriate workers;
reporting of anti-trafficking law enforcement data as well as data pertaining to the number of victims identified and the services provided to them;
providing anti-trafficking training to government officials.
The report noted that it was "unclear whether the government decreased efforts to protect victims of trafficking due to a lack of government provided statistics in this area, and many victims of forced labour, including debt bondage, likely remained unidentified and unprotected."
A quick implementation of the roadmap would serve to enhance Qatar's tarnished credibility and demonstrate its sincerity even if the fundamental problems associated with the kafala system remain unaddressed. The government has said sought to eliminate some of the most onerous aspects of kafala in reforms of the sponsorship system that are scheduled to take effect in December.
The reforms would eliminate indefinite-term labour contracts and replace them with five-year agreements. Workers, however, would not be allowed to break the contract or change employers before the contract has expired. Workers would continue to need their employer's permission to travel but the reforms introduce a government appeal mechanism.
The measures in the distilled roadmap are likely to be less politically sensitive than demands by trade unions and human rights groups that the kafala system be abolished in a country in which changes to the status of foreigners evoke existential fears.
Many of the Gulf state's minority Qatari citizens, who account for a mere 12 percent of the Gulf state's population, fear that changes would open the door to greater rights for foreigners which would threaten Qatari control of their society, culture and system of government.
The political sensitivity is enhanced by some Qataris questioning whether expenditure on mega-events like the World Cup are appropriate at a time that reduced energy prices have forced the government to cut costs and announce plans to rewrite the social contract that granted the country's rulers absolute power in exchange for cradle-to-grave welfare.