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The Road to Reform: Have Things Got Better for Qatar’s World Cup Migrant Workers? | Workers rights

When Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup in 2010, the triumphant Gulf state unveiled its plans to host the most spectacular of all World Cup tournaments and began an ambitious stadium building plan ultramodern, luxury hotels and a new metro.

Yet over the next decade the brutal conditions under which hundreds of thousands of migrant workers worked in scorching heat to build Qatar’s vision for the World Cup have come to light, with investigations into forced labor, debt bondage and the death toll among workers sparking international outrage.

In an attempt to appease growing criticism, Qatar announced sweeping labor reforms in 2019. This included the end kafala, the system that made it illegal for migrant workers to change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s permission, thereby trapping workers who were exploited and abused. Other reforms included the first minimum wage for migrant workers in the region and tougher penalties for companies that did not comply with the new labor laws.

When they entered into force in September 2020, the reforms were very well received. Fifa called them revolutionaries. The UN said they marked a new era. An international union called them game-changers. Even human rights groups, long critical of Qatar’s record on labor rights, have given them a cautious welcome.

Yet more than 40 migrant workers who spoke to the Guardian in Qatar in September and October this year say nothing has really changed for them.

Although the International Labor Organization (ILO) says more than 200,000 workers have changed employers since the new laws were passed, the Guardian has only met one worker – a young Kenyan – who had succeeded. to quit his job.

His experience spoke volumes about the potential empowerment that the new laws could bring to the lives of workers. When he arrived in Qatar, he was earning 625 rials (£ 127) a month as a construction worker. Today he works for a logistics company with almost three times the salary. “I can send a lot more money home. Now I can’t complain, ”he says.

Yet everyone the Guardian has spoken to who wanted to change jobs says it is difficult or impossible to do so.

They claim that their companies are simply ignoring the new laws. Some say their bosses threaten to impose fines or withhold wages if they try to change jobs, and that they live so close to misery that it could be catastrophic.

Other workers say employers refuse to sign resignation letters or issue “certificates of no objection”, apparently unaware that neither is required under the reformed labor code.

“They are threatening us, saying they will deduct the cost of our room and bedding from our salary and refuse to pay end-of-service pay if we try to leave,” an Indian security guard said. “We are still under their control.

A Kenyan security guard says: “I found another job but when I went to my company they refused to release me. I waited three months and they refused again. He says he could take an employment tribunal to defend his case, but that he would have to pay for transportation he cannot afford and time off from work his company does not allow.

A security guard at a five-star hotel near Doha takes shelter from the scorching sun. Photography: Pete Pattisson, an advocacy group for migrant workers across the Gulf, describe the end of kafala as a “mirage”, saying that employers could easily prevent disgruntled workers from leaving.

When asked if the reforms made a difference, another Nepalese worker gives a simple verdict: “Kafala is alive.”

The new minimum wage of 1,000 rials per month, plus food and meals, appears to be more rigorously enforced. Most of the low-wage workers surveyed said they received the legal minimum, a significant increase from their previous wages, with the exception of some security guards who regularly work 12-hour shifts but do not receive compulsory overtime.

Yet the new minimum wage set by the Qatari government, one of the richest countries in the world, is still only £ 1 an hour.

These low wages mean that workers often stay in Qatar for years, unable to afford to return home to their families. A Nepalese worker who spoke to the Guardian has not seen his wife and child for five years. “When I call my son, he doesn’t come to me,” he says. ” He … not [even] talk to me on the phone.

The Qatari authorities and the ILO recognize that the reforms are underway. “[The Qatari government] face implementation challenges and a certain level of resistance, which is not surprising given their scale, ”says Max Tuñón, ILO project manager in Qatar.

A government spokesperson said that with the new laws in place, the focus had shifted to implementation and enforcement: “Achieving systemic change is a long-term process and it will require changing the behavior of each company. Harsh penalties have been imposed on companies that attempt to evade the law, they add.

The Qatar Supreme Committee, the body responsible for organizing the World Cup, said the tournament is a powerful catalyst for creating a lasting human and social legacy before, during and beyond the World Cup. FIFA 2022.

He said in a statement: “Our commitment to the well-being of workers has resulted in significant improvements in accommodation standards, health and safety regulations, grievance mechanisms, healthcare and reimbursements. illegal recruitment fees to workers. “

Human rights groups warn Qatar is running out of time to ensure new reforms actually improve the lives of migrant workers before the World Cup begins in November next year.

“[Qatar’s] major reform of the kafala sponsorship system only took place at the end of 2020, 10 years after the country put itself in the world spotlight, ”says James Lynch, director of human rights group FairSquare.

“The reforms were hampered by initial difficulties and a setback on the part of the business community, and so there are real questions as to whether it will harness its transformative potential in the run-up to and beyond the Cup. of the world.”

Workers on a construction site
Indian workers build Katara Towers, a luxury hotel and office complex in Lusail, north of Doha. Photography: Pete Pattisson

Most of the World Cup’s eight stadiums and related infrastructure had been completed by the end of 2020, before the reforms took full effect.

“There is an urgent need to inject political will to ensure that this reform and others have a meaningful impact for workers and anchor these changes for the long term,” said Lynch.

Qatar, Fifa and the ILO have repeatedly declared that the World Cup will leave a lasting legacy of better workers’ rights in Qatar and across the region. So far, anecdotal evidence suggests that inheritance is far from secure.

During road construction work near central Doha last month, the Guardian met four workers recently arrived from India employed by AlJaber Engineering. AlJaber, one of Qatar’s leading construction companies, built the Al Thumama Stadium. Along with all other World Cup subcontractors, AlJaber must adhere to strict worker welfare standards which, among other things, do not allow workers to pay recruiting fees.

But the four workers say they each paid almost £ 1,000 in recruiting fees to secure their jobs. Their claims suggest that AlJaber may not apply World Cup worker welfare standards to his new contracts. AlJaber Engineering did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Human rights activists are already wondering how much pressure there will be on the Qatari government to ensure that the new laws are actually implemented on the ground after the World Cup ends next year.

In a recent interview, Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan blogger and migrant worker who was arrested, placed in solitary confinement and then accused of spreading “fake news” for writing about the plight of migrant workers online, poses the question. same question. “If I have been unfairly detained and unfairly fined – with all eyes on Qatar – what happens when no one is watching? he asks.

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