Qatar: Diplomatic rift in Gulf squeezes business, putting rights of migrant workers at risk
On 5 June 2017, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and subsequently cut off all land, air, and sea traffic over the country's alleged support for terrorist groups. The economic blockade has raised concerns over the import of foods and other goods, as well as the delivery of construction materials and equipment for the vast infrastructure portfolios in the country, including projects for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. This page tracks the business and human rights implications of the rift in Qatar, focusing specifically on the impact on migrant worker communities.
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...[A]s the blockade closes on its second month, the effects are increasingly felt by migrants in the hospitality, construction and shipping industries. Employees in these sectors have been asked to go on unpaid 'long leave' for two to three months, in addition to their standard 30 days of paid annual leave...Some popular five-star hotels have asked several employees to take additional leave due to lack of business..."Most of our restaurant staff and others have been sent on long leave. Some are sent on three months, others on four months of extra leave. But they won't pay for this additional leave..."[W]e are not sure if will be called back to work or the hotel will extend the leave," said Leela, an employee of a five-star hotel...As the majority of construction materials are imported from neighbouring countries or brought in by land through those borders, this sector has also slowed down and some employees currently on annual leave have been asked to not come back for another two months...according to a quantity surveyor at a construction company. Similarly, employees of some shipping agents have been asked to take at least four months unpaid leave due to lack of work...The General Manager of a leading Doha hotel...said business has been affected drastically by the blockade...However, he denied that workers were forced to go on extended leave...Many companies, including this hotel, have asked workers who had gone on summer vacation to not return on schedule and extend their leave by some weeks...He added that he didn’t expect to see a recovery until well after summer, even if the blockade were to end soon.
In the midst of the ongoing crisis...the ones first and most critically affected are the already marginalised migrant workers...During a recent visit to Qatar, Migrant-Rights.org assessed how the blockade’s ground realities affect lower-income migrant workers. The top three concerns that emerge are:
Forced Leave: Several migrant workers, across sectors and economic strata, have been asked to go on extended unpaid leave...
Job Loss: Workers in the construction sector, mainly those employed by supply companies, have been given two to four weeks to find alternative jobs or leave the country...[T]he problem will become more severe when the current supply of construction material runs out. Companies are preparing by putting relationships with manpower supply companies on hold. The workers most affected now are subcontracted workers...Large construction projects depend heavily on subcontractors, as company responses to Business and Human Rights Resource Centre surveys reveal...While these large companies may comply with prevailing standards, subcontractors, especially those several rungs down the supply chain, often work in a grey area....
Food: On average, there has been a 10 to 15% increase in food prices...it is taking a toll on lower-income expatriates. Cafeterias near labour accommodation have only increased their prices by a riyal or two per meal...A different kind of impact is felt in accommodations where food is provided...
Author: James Lynch, Amnesty International, in Newsweek (USA)
...[A]s Qatar’s neighbors seek fresh angles with which to target their political adversary, migrant workers’ rights has emerged as a particularly promising avenue...Given that the kafala sponsorship system exists...in each Gulf state, Qatar is hardly unique in treating workers poorly. During the current crisis there are real fears for migrant workers stranded in Saudi Arabia and separated from their Qatari employers as a result of Saudi Arabia’s decision to close the country's border...Forced labor is rife among migrant workers in Qatar. The government has made no serious moves to investigate and address the large number of unexplained deaths among the young, mostly South Asian, men who are building the country’s infrastructure..[S]ince the Gulf political crisis blew up, there have been credible reports of foreign workers on some oil and gas projects in Qatar being denied the exit permits they need from their employers to leave the country. There are also serious concerns about how rises in food prices and the uncertain economic situation generated by the crisis will affect migrants...This sluggish, defensive response of the government to legitimate criticism over migrant rights is a gift to Qatar’s rivals, allowing them to politicize and exploit the very real suffering of migrant workers for their own means...The opportunity for the [Qatar] government is obvious, if it wants to prove its critics wrong: Seek support from the ILO to agree a genuine and bold package of labor reforms, including really overhauling the kafala system so that migrants can no longer be trapped by their employers. Launch a transparent investigation into the causes of worker deaths, and put in place measures to address them. And ensure that in the current political crisis, the rights of migrant workers are protected with the same vigor and intensity as those of Gulf citizens.
- Related stories: Qatar: Diplomatic rift in Gulf squeezes business, putting rights of migrant workers at risk
- Related in-depth areas: Labour rights and the Qatar World Cup 2022
Author: Zainab Fattah, Bloomberg (USA)
...A four-nation embargo led by Saudi Arabia has cut off Qatar construction materials it was counting on to build at least eight stadiums, lay dozens of miles of rail work and erect a brand new city before the world’s most-watched sporting event. But...the gas-rich nation says it is casting further abroad and laying out more cash than planned to replace suppliers that live next door. Malaysian steel is replacing Saudi. Oman will provide materials originally ordered from the U.A.E....China is stepping into the breach with dozens of products...Some suppliers from boycotting nations are rerouting shipments through Omani ports....Secretary General of the Qatar World Cup Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy Hassan Al-Thawadi said...“We are working with our contractors to make sure we actually deliver long-term supply chain solutions and alternatives.”
...Initial shortages of specific construction materials have mostly subsided but contractors’ worries about non-payment and delayed payment, which predated the boycott, “will now likely be exacerbated by it,” said Allison Wood, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with the Control Risks strategy firm in Dubai. “The goods from new supply chains are often more expensive and a lot of contractors are already operating on quite low margins, so higher costs of materials can really cut into their bottom line,” she added. “There’s no doubt that the boycott will put an additional premium on what was already going to be a very expensive World Cup.”...Contractors say they’ve had to move fast to find new markets for comparable materials, and that’s delayed things. Al-Thawadi said that won’t affect the overall schedule and that cost overruns as a result of having to create last-minute supply chains have been minimal...
Author: Human Rights Watch (USA)
The isolation of Qatar...is precipitating serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today. It is...stranding migrant workers without food or water...Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed and documented the cases of...70 foreign migrant workers living in Qatar, many of whose rights have been violated by restrictive policies imposed since June 5...The isolation of Qatar has negatively affected non-Gulf foreign migrant workers, primarily from South Asia...Human Rights Watch interviewed 70 migrant workers – most from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan...Some reported long-standing abuses such as non-payment or late payment of salaries or unsanitary living conditions, but nearly all complained that the closure of the land border had caused a rise in food prices in Qatar that was causing serious economic hardship...A corporate social responsibility officer at a large company in Qatar said by phone that she heard from two other companies with migrant worker employees that fruit companies were not selling their produce “in supermarkets for workers” but did not know why. She said that her company was focused on nutrition for its migrant workers and looking at alternatives for perishable fruits and vegetables such as fruit juice, and frozen fruits and vegetables. Two construction workers also said that their work sites had run out of building materials because of the land border closure, and that they worried about their companies’ stability.
Author: Phil Bloomer, Executive Director of BHRRC, in Thomson Reuters Foundation
It’s business as usual has been the sound bite from the Qatari Finance Minister...during five weeks of regional isolation and economic blockade...The crisis will undoubtedly squeeze businesses. But it will hurt hundreds of thousands of migrant workers more. Many now face an uncertain future fearing soaring prices of food and staple goods, unpaid wages, layoffs and destitution...[T]he country's booming construction sector is likely to face rising costs and difficulties importing materials and equipment...There is also a significant risk that real estate investment will dry up, which could lead to project delays and a halt of construction and business activities altogether...A lack of safeguards means that a squeeze on construction companies will quickly spread through the company and be passed down to the most vulnerable – the migrant workers...Construction companies could send wages into arrears, fire workers, fail to pay them their dues and end of service benefits, and assist in preventing workers from leaving the country...The uncertain plight of these workers highlights the urgent need for the large majority of lagging construction firms to wake up to their human rights responsibilities...[U]nless business steps up, workers will remain vulnerable in the long term and continue to feel the brunt of this crisis.
Author: Tom Finn, Reuters (Qatar)
Expatriates working in Qatar said...their employers had canceled holidays and barred them from leaving the country in the wake of a rift with other Arab powers. A Qatari government official said some leave had been canceled in "essential government sectors" to keep staff on hand as authorities made plans to cope with the crisis, but did not mention travel restrictions or any focus on foreigners. Expatriate executives and engineers at Qatar Petroleum...said the orders started a day after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed trade and transport links with Qatar..."I was told not to travel. My exit permit and holiday was canceled," said a British expatriate at one of the state-owned group's subsidiaries. A spokesman for Qatar Petroleum said that due to the sanctions on Qatar "a few selected critical employees may have been asked to postpone their leave for operational reasons at their discretion."...Doctors from the government-run Hamad hospital made similar reports and others said the orders had affected hundreds of people...A work-sponsorship system widely enforced in the Gulf and known in Qatar as "kafala" requires foreign workers to get their employer's consent to change jobs or leave the country. Expatriates from Europe and America usually acquire multiple-exit permits from their employers allowing them to travel more freely than migrant laborers from India and Nepal who make up the bulk of the 2.7 million-strong population.
Author: FIFA.com (Switzerland)
Following the recent opening of the Khalifa International Stadium, construction is advancing rapidly across all of the tournament stadium sites ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar™. Seven more stadiums are currently in different stages of construction, with Al Wakrah Stadium set to be one of the next venues to be completed at the end of next year...Qatar Foundation Stadium in Doha’s Education City is scheduled for completion at the end of 2019, while Al Thumama Stadium will be completed in 2020. Construction work is also underway at both the Lusail Stadium and Ras Abu Aboud Stadium. “We are moving ahead rapidly with construction across all of our stadium and infrastructure sites for the tournament,” SC Competition Venues Executive Director Ghanim Al Kuwari told sc.qa.
Author: Intl Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
Workers from Bangladesh, India and Nepal are telling of essential food prices doubling with the sealing of the Saudi border and closure of air and sea links to Qatar. Food deliveries by costly air freight from Iran and Turkey are pushing up prices, while the availability of materials for the huge World Cup infrastructure programme...is also in question. Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, said..."[T]he brunt of the crisis is already being felt by impoverished migrants who have no rights under the kafala system. Probable delays in construction projects are likely to add further pressure on the huge migrant workforce, in a country where they have no real recourse to justice. Those who want to leave the country have to get their employer’s permission, and many workers are still paying off debts to recruitment agents who arranged their passage to Qatar. The Qatar government should...remove the kafala exit-permit requirement so that those who want to return home are not trapped in Qatar.” Multinational companies doing business in Qatar must also take responsibility for the workers in their supply chains...The immediate needs of these workers need to be taken care of, and contracts and promises of wages must be fulfilled...Construction companies in Qatar should ensure that any delays to infrastructure projects do not lead to lay-offs or wage cuts.
Author: Colin Foreman, MEED (UAE)
Construction companies working in Qatar say that they are starting to feel the supply chain impact of the trade restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE...Contractors estimate that about half of Qatar’s building material and equipment are imported and if the embargo continues it will have a major impact on their ability to deliver projects and as a result there could be years of litigation....“Bitumen is the big worry at the moment,” says an international contractor working in Doha. “Most of Qatar’s bitumen comes from Bahrain, and they have now stopped shipments. Some contractors are sitting on a stockpile and will be ok for a while. Those that were relying on new deliveries have problems already.”...Bitumen is a primary product used in road construction...[T]here are over $18bn of major road schemes under construction at the moment in Qatar. If the shortages persist Qatar will need to find alternative sources of bitumen from other markets if these projects are to progress as planned.