Thursday, May 06, 2010

Qatar: How The World's Wealthiest Nation Per Capita Relies on Migrant Worker Labor

In an attempt to further expand the scope of my research, I recently attended a few meetings and conferences in the State of Qatar to better assess the human rights and migrant labor issues that this majestic city-state currently faces.

Qatar hosts the most dramatic demographic contradictions between its local population and the migrant worker community that it must outsource in order to accommodate its rapid and unparalleled Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Industry. With only 350,000 Qatari citizens inhabiting a nation that boasts the highest production and export of LNG in the world, Qatar ranks number one for the world's highest GDP per capita income and embodies a rentier welfare-state in its most basic description.

However, the wealth that Qataris enjoy is at the expense of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers that are brought to the country on two-year contracts to work in nearly every sector and industry that the country has consecrated, mostly because the Qataris have no interest in working in positions that are not managerial or administrative. They hold a reputation that is even more negatively slanted than their Kuwaiti counter-parts, attributed largely to the country's massive natural resource wealth that provides a backbone for lavish lifestyles that are serviced and maintained by the hands of poor, outsourced laborers.

However, it is unfair to immediately dismiss the Qataris in their efforts to regulate and protect their migrant worker population. Higher income for Qataris has trickled down the economic ladder and raised income levels for migrant workers to higher salaries than anywhere else in the region. Legitimacy of private sector employment contracts is upheld and regulated by the Ministry of Interior. Unlike other parts of the region, Qatar maintains a strict turn-over of migrant workers to prevent long-term residency and the potential to reap attractive welfare benefits.

As a result, sponsors are less able to withhold wages and force their employees to stay in the country longer than the 2-year period the law allows. Although issues like withheld passports, coercive employment tactics (i.e. false contracts), and rights to change employers continue to remain crucial issues for anti-trafficking and human rights advocates, Qatar has seen rapid advancements under its labor law, with many foreseeable positive developments on the horizon.

Some of these developments have already come to fruition, and include, the abolition of the Camel Jockey industry. Previous to the Qatari Government's intervention in this regionally cultural tradition, underage children or "camel jockeys" were recruited from south Asia to participate in extremely dangers recreational races for entertainment purposes. Many were seriously injured and malnourished to keep them within race-weight standards. Now, the industry has made use of electronic jockeys instead, which has allegedly stopped the flow of the children who were previously trafficked into the country and exploited.

Another major development is the incorporation of anti-trafficking statutes under the current labor law. I will underscore that there is still no anti-trafficking law (although talk of drafting one has been reported); nevertheless, statutes exist that make use of similar language and highlight relative clauses that penalize trafficking of laborers. Qataris have even been tried, convicted, and imprisoned under these statutes-something barely seen in arguably more labor-friendly countries like Bahrain.

Like its neighbors, Qatari labor law maintains a crucial fault with regard to its domestic worker population (including housemaids, drivers, cooks and gardeners) who are not offered any legal protection under the current labor law or benefits that are awarded to private sector employees. Salaries, days-off and contracts are the responsibility of the sponsor and offer considerable room for ambiguity and abuse to exploitative employers. However, in response to growing criticisms from the international communities towards Qatar and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), new interest has developed in drafting a formal labor law that will better regulate Qatar domestic worker population.

Featured on the front page of one of the country's principle English-speaking newspapers, The Peninsula, an article described the development of a new domestic labor law being drafted by a special panel tasked with finalizing the regulation of rights and duties of domestic workers. The panel will incorporate representatives from several government agencies and will review with other GCC countries. The draft law may finally provide privileges to domestic employees, like end-of-service benefits, annual leave, and free medical care. These and other formal arrangements would have to be included in contracts between sponsors and their employees and would require endorsement by the Labor Department to be considered legally valid. The law might also regulate the functioning of manpower agencies and their role in hiring domestic workers in the country, The Peninsula reported.

And finally, the sponsorship system. Found in all countries except for Bahrain officially, but actually found in all countries of the Gulf unofficially, Qatar's sponsorship system seems to be the most archaic and limited with regard to a worker's access to mobility. As is required in Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, a sponsor must provide consent for his employer to change to a different sponsor. In Qatar, the process is further complicated with the addition of a second party that must approve a change of employment as well-the Ministry of Interior. Qatar, like Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait has embraced a new economic development model that "ization-izes" the national population and encourages locals to enter the job market. Limiting positions for expatriates is an effective way to open up the job market to locals but discourages the professional development of expatriates.

Qatar presents an intriguing case study for human trafficking and migrant worker issues in the Arabian Gulf. I intend to keep my attention partially focused on the peninsula as it embarks on a proactive course of action to improve its labor laws and the lives of its expatriate workforce. I am sure there will be some follow-up.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for a helpful and well article.

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  2. Hi,

    As a temporary resident on Qatar who just got back to California after 4 months studying there, I think you missed on two important subtleties about labor issues in the Gulf:

    1st is the distinction between Western and South Asian/Middle Eastern/African/Asian workers in terms of functional rights. While I had many of the same restrictions placed on me as a U.S. citizen (I needed permission from my sponsor to travel abroad, could not switch sponsors without permission, could not work for anyone but my sponsor) because of the color of my passport I had a lot more protections than the workers from non-Western countries. The lexicographical distinction I heard most often was between "guest-workers" (ie, non-Western, mostly manual laborers) and "expatriates" (Western managers and professors). While the same labor laws cover both populations, the economic differences significantly shift their agency within the system.

    2) While your snapshot of Qatar's labor laws is instructive, it misses the broader picture. Qatar has two classes--extremely rich ex-pats and nationals, and extremely poor guest-workers. There is a very limited middle class. Contrast this with Dubai today, and you see where Doha might be heading. Starting 15 years ago where Doha is now, Dubai has seen a significant growth of its middle class, made up nearly entirely of Indian and Iranian ex-expatriates. This middle class has the economic and political power necessary to change the UAE's approach to non-nationals. This is a direction I hope Qatar moves in, but your commentary does not address.

    Anyhoo, thanks for the profile! You might want to look at the extremely effective efforts of the Sri Lankan embassy to support maids and other female guest workers who have been abused (the U.S. Department of State's Human Rights Report for Qatar documents them briefly). Thanks!

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  3. Anonymous1:32 AM

    EX-PATS WORKING IN GOVT. AUTHORITYS,MINISTRY ARE RARELY PROVIDED SOME OF THE IMPORTANT PRIVELLEGES, LIKE HEALTH INSURANCE,IMPROVED SALARY PACKAGES. EVEN IT HAS BEEN NOTICED IN SOME OF THE GOVT AUTHORITYS, THAT THE MOST SNR PROFESSIONAL EXPAT WORKERS NOT GETTING THE IMPROVED AND HANDSOME SALARY PACKAGES,LIKE BONUS,TICKETS INCLUDING DEPENDENTS BEING WKNG IN THE RELATIVE AVIATION STAFF.AND EVEN AFTER REQSTING TO THE AUTHORITYS HEADS ABOUT THE PHENOMENA AND GRIEVANCES FOR YEARS, NOTHING CONCRETED MEASURES HAS BEEN TAKEN CARE OF,DUE TO THE ONE MAN RULING THE SHOW UNDER HIS CONTROLLING AUTHORITYS.SUCH SUFFERINGS HAS EVEN NOT KNOWN TO THE HUMAN RIGHT PERSONEL TO FLASH FOR THE ACTING COMMITTEE TO DELIVER SOME PARAMETERES.THE WORKERS BEING HARASSED FOR SACKING, IF THE MATTER BROUGHT TO THE KNOWLEDGE OF PROPER AUTHORITYS AND HUMAN RIGHTS DEPT IN THE COUNTRY. THUS HUMAN RIGHTS SHOULD BE REQUIRED TO MAKE AN URGENT SURVEYS TO THESE GOVT AUTHORITYS TO CHECK THE SALARY PACKAGES COINCIDING ALL RELEVANT PERKS SINCE LONG TIME SERVICE. MANY A CASES HAS BEEN NOTED THE WORKERS HAS LEFT THE COUNTRY BEING UNDER THE SCALE AND POOR SALARY PAYMENTS.THE SALARYS OF THE SAME DESIGNATION HOLDER IN THE OTHER GOVT/MINISTRY/AUTHORITYS ARE MUCH MUCH DIFFERENT THAN SOME OF OTHERS. EVEN IT IS NOTICED THAT THE 10TH 12TH GRADE PROFESSIONALS ARE ENJOYING MORE THAN THE CLERICAL/OFFICE IN CHARGE GRADE STAFF.

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  4. Another issue to consider is how labourers, usually from Asia, are treated in society. In Qatar, labourers are refused entry into malls, parks, tourist areas, etc. They often face racism, discrimination and abuse. They are segregated from society. They are often blamed for the ills in society, accused of bringing sins into an otherwise pure culture. Laws that would ordinarily be overlooked when it comes to Western expats are applied harshly to labourers and domestic workers.

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  5. Anonymous12:45 PM

    what about the human trafficking?

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