And not in ten years’ time says HRW researcher
By Sindhu Nair
Last month, Qatar Today published interviews with two leading Qataris, one representing the Labour Ministry and another a prominent lawyer, both of whom criticised the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in June 2012 that critically examined the recruitment process and Qatar’s restrictive sponsorship system.
Reacting to the comments that were thrown at the US-based organisation dedicated to defending and protecting human rights, HRW, Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Priyanka Motaparthy says: “HRW examined Qatar’s labour and sponsorship laws and regulations. These laws apply to all workers in the country, not just the 73 workers interviewed, and the laws fail to protect workers’ rights and can enable abuse.”
Explain the process by which you have collected data for the HRW Qatar Report? How do you react to the comment made by the Director of Legal Affairs at the Labour Ministry that the picture given by HRW is prejudiced by vested interests?
As our report states, we held detailed interviews with 73 migrant construction workers, whose conditions are the focus of the report. We met interviewees at random in public spaces where workers tended to congregate, at work sites, in labour camps and in front of the government Labour Complaints Department. Lastly, we gave the Labour Ministry and other government officials opportunities to respond to our findings, both by interviewing them and by sending them a detailed summary of our findings, and requesting their response, which we have published in full as part of the report.
The comment made by the Labour Ministry director that HRW has prejudices or vested interests is neither clear nor credible. We don’t receive government funding nor do we take funding from private companies engaged in the work our reports cover. We lay out our methodology in our reports, and give governments-including the Qatari Labour Ministry-an opportunity to respond.
Looking at the percentage of migrant workers in the country, with respect to the workers interviewed, do you think that the figures represent a minority?
We interviewed 73 workers at random from locations around the country. However, our report did not merely rely on these interviews, but examined Qatar’s labour and sponsorship laws and regulations. These laws apply to all workers in the country, not just those interviewed, and the laws themselves fail to protect workers’ rights and can enable abuse.
Explain your experience working with the Labour Ministry? Were they open to suggestions and criticism?
The Labour Ministry has been very open to dialogue with us. They provided us a lengthy response to our findings and follow-up questions, which we published as part of our report.
At the same time, they did not provide important data we requested, including the numbers of workplace deaths and injuries over the last three years, the number of companies sent to court for violating workers’ rights, and the number of worker complaints against employers that resulted in restitution to employees. We would of course still welcome this information.
The Gulf region in particular relies on a large proportion of migrant workers for low-scale jobs. Is this human rights violation particular in these regions due to this dependence?
We see no problem with employing large numbers of migrant workers who seek work. The problem arises when countries that employ these workers don’t put in place the laws and infrastructure needed to ensure these workers’ rights are protected. One of our most important findings was that while Qatar does have some good laws, they are not adequately enforced. Though the country has more than one million migrant workers, it employs only 150 labour inspectors, and none of them speak the languages spoken by the majority of workers in the country, nor do they employ interpreters. Even the government labour helpline can only receive complaints in Arabic and English, which most workers do not speak. How can the Qatari government monitor workers’ rights violations when its inspectors can’t speak to workers?
What are your observations from the HRW report of Saudi Arabia, which practices the Kafala system?
Our criticism of the Kafala system throughout the Gulf is that governments give employers the power to deny workers freedom to change jobs and in some countries to leave the country without a private employer’s permission. Employers have nearly unchecked power over whether workers can earn their living and stay in countries they’ve spent huge sums (in some cases, their life savings or more) to migrate to. These conditions, created by laws and regulations that make up the Kafala system in various countries, enable abuse. Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar, are the two Gulf countries that retain the particularly problematic requirement that workers get an exit permit from their employers before they can leave the country.
How do you react to the comment made by the lawyer, Al Zaman: “The broad aim of the HRW report is to give rights and freedom to the expatriates but at the expense of nationals while obliterating their national identity”?
Our goal is indeed to “create the legislative and social climate for giving expatriate workers more rights and freedoms,” as the Qatari lawyer interviewed states, because Qatari law currently fails to give them the minimum standard of protection of their rights and freedoms that international law requires. However, it’s not our view that the application of basic international standards would “obliterate Qataris’ national identity”. Qatar’s national identity can only be enhanced by protecting human rights commitments the country’s rulers have already committed to upholding. Ultimately, human rights protections should benefit all, including Qatari nationals, which is why their government has agreed to uphold these standards.
From a human rights perspective, do you feel this situation may deteriorate as World Cup 2022 approaches? The organising committee has intimated that they will need tens of thousands more workers here to complete that project.
The World Cup 2022 certainly presents a challenge, but it is also an opportunity. If the government puts in place the protections needed now, then these tens of thousands of workers can earn their living in just conditions, with legal checks to ensure that employers don’t abuse their rights. If it does not, then indeed the situation could be dire.
Are you expecting change here regarding the sponsorship laws? Will you be authorising a follow-up report in the coming years?
We hope that there will be a change, but sponsorship reform needs to happen urgently, not in ten years’ time. We intend to follow up on our research to examine if the government does make positive changes to recognise those accomplishments.