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.