Qatar: the unfinished journey

Reports from the ground underline a continuous breach of the new labour legislation and abuses by unscrupulous employers. Work contracts do not reflect the real working conditions. Justice is delayed or denied in most instances. Rampant wage abuses leave migrant workers indebted or unable to make ends meet. These abuses reflect a power imbalance at the workplace with employers having too much and workers too little. We need to keep the spotlight on workers in Qatar, on their rights and working conditions, during and after the World Cup. Others may forget them when the Games are over, but we will stand with them in solidarity as long as fundamental human rights are denied.


Guest blog by Ambet Yuson, General Secretary, Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI)


Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), like other Global Unions, places the defence of trade union rights at the centre of its mission. It does not seek to take care of workers, but rather to help them gain the power to defend their rights and interests and participate in the determination of their own destinies.


Violations of human rights of workers in our sectors are common, but that is especially true for migrant workers. We stand with them in their struggle and will not be satisfied until they can freely exercise their rights. Protection of migrant workers’ rights is part of the trade union struggle for democracy. For migrants in Qatar, like elsewhere, seeking democracy means exercising trade union rights.


One of the most fundamental human rights is freedom of association. The ILO considers “trade union rights” to include freedom of association, the right to organise, and the right to collective bargaining. Trade union rights, like freedom of expression, are enabling rights. The exercise of those rights enables people to gain access to other rights.


Although the relevant ILO Conventions are widely ratified, many countries have not yet done so, including large ones like China, the United States, and Brazil. Many others that have ratified them fail to apply the Conventions. For example, Belarus has ratified the key trade union rights Conventions, 87 and 98, however, in July, the Supreme Court dissolved the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade unions and four major trade unions and authorities have imprisoned large numbers of labour leaders, some for several months.


Even in countries with good laws protecting trade union rights, employers have often introduced precarious forms of work that generate fear and insecurity making it difficult, if not impossible, to exercise trade union rights.


Precarious work is rampant for migrant workers. In addition to employment risks if one organises, maintaining residence for some may be difficult due to temporary status and, they may fear being sent back home.


The unfinished journey

Globally, migrant workers make up 4.9 per cent of the labour force of destination countries. However, this figure is highest, at 41.4 per cent, in the Arab States and even higher in several of the Gulf States. In Qatar, the UN estimates that only 15 per cent of the population is Qatari.

Among workers, some sectors, like construction, are almost totally composed of migrant workers.

In recent years, there has been important progress in Qatar on human rights and working conditions. The most profound change has been addressing the fundamental right to be free of forced labour through the reform of the kafala system although there are still some recalcitrant employers who defy the law. Some reforms still need to be fully implemented, but changes that have already taken place are significant improvements for migrant workers.

The concessions won by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the international labour movement related to forced labour brought important advancement in the protection of the human rights of migrant workers. Far-reaching labour laws reforming the sponsorship system “kafala” that gave employers control over all aspects of workers’ lives, introducing a minimum wage, and setting up mechanisms to seek labour justice were introduced.


Qatar is being used as an example, not because it is worse than all other countries, but because BWI has had the opportunity to work with the migrant workers and their leaders and the Qatari authorities. On World Cup sites, BWI worked with the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy to help workers elect their representatives at the workplaces. In another form of representation, BWI has supported migrant associations, based on nationality, to come together in a confederation which meets regularly with the Ministry of Labour.


We might be tempted to declare that the “job is done”, that laws cannot be implemented overnight and that it takes time before they make a real change in workers lives.


However, reports from the ground underline a continuous breach of the new labour legislation and abuses by unscrupulous employers. Work contracts do not reflect the real working conditions. Justice is delayed or denied in most instances. Rampant wage abuses leave migrant workers indebted or unable to make ends meet. These abuses reflect a power imbalance at the workplace with employers having too much and workers too little.


Even in a cooperative environment, the right of workers to join together and try to offset that imbalance of power is not yet accepted. Electing representatives on some sites is not freedom of associations. There are no industrial relations because there are still no trade unions. However positive, the reform process undertaken falls far short of trade union rights.


As trade unionists we have to recognise any single win we fought for, but our “job is not done” until workers will have the rights collectively to shape their lives and their futures.


The ILO has a long and rich history on trade union rights and other labour standards. Government, employer, and worker representatives have set those standards for over a century and have established machinery to supervise compliance: the Committee of Experts, the Committee on Freedom of Associations and other mechanisms.


Governments are expected to put their laws and practices into conformity with ILO standards. Redefining standards to put them in conformity with something on the ground that may be positive, but that does not meet those standards, will not only be a disservice to migrant workers, but to all workers.


Governments often fear freedom of association and collective bargaining, anxious that there is a danger of rebellion, violence, or even revolution. In fact, the right of workers to organise into free trade unions, fund their unions and engage in honest and good-faith collective bargaining provides stability.


There will always be conflicts in workplaces, whether they are made up of migrants, non-migrants, or both. Government repression does not eliminate conflicts, it increases the danger of explosion. Instead, what is needed is a way to have legitimate and representative partners that can peacefully resolve conflict, build trust, and move forward together. That is not only good for the actors at the workplace, but for nations and their development.


Global Unions – taking the lead on migrant worker rights

Global unions cannot eliminate extreme polarisation, but they can generate healthy and positive discussions in their own ranks. After all, the best way to protect the rights and conditions of non-migrant workers is to ensure that migrants have the same protections as other workers and cannot be used by employers to undercut others or national laws and collective agreements. GUFs can also bring unions, where they exist, together from sending and receiving countries.


The respect of human rights is not something that can be dealt with from a distance. One of the reasons that workers need to have unions is that they are at the workplace every day and can resolve problems that others might not even see.


As Eleanor Roosevelt said after the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, when asked how progress would be measured:

‘Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.’


Unions from all over the world who come together in Global Unions are very much aware of the need to make rights real on site. They are dedicated to protect, promote, and defend workers’ rights, to recognise injustices wherever they arise, and to fight them.


They and their member organisations do it in every corner of the planet, internationally or locally. They understand that organised labour is the engine for the realisation and emancipation of people. It is the strongest lever for social justice and the transformation of society.

They know that all workers are equal and must enjoy the same rights: irrespective of gender, religious beliefs, class, or origin.


Equal rights, for everybody, everywhere.


Regularly, our Global Unions gather to make important political and organisational decisions. Interventions and agreements shape future work based on common values. Their efforts spring from the belief that all workers possess the same human rights and need to be able to act collectively if individual workers are to be free. That is the context in which we must speak of Qatar.


We need to keep the spotlight on workers in Qatar, on their rights and working conditions, during and after the World Cup. Others may forget them when the Games are over, but we will stand with them in solidarity as long as fundamental human rights are denied.


After all: if you do not have the right to speak with a co-worker without fear, can you consider yourself free at all? If you do not have the collective strength to look your employer in the eye and confront abuse, who else will stop it? If you cannot learn to articulate and claim your rights with confidence with your employer and the government, how can workers achieve their hopes for the future?


Their fight is our fight.


We need to speak about Qatar: because our Global Union moment has the power to shine the light of justice, illuminate every corner of the world of work and point the way to a more just, democratic, and equal global society.