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22 Дек 2022

After the final whistle: labour rights in the Gulf post-World Cup

For those working in and on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), 2022 ended with mixed feelings. For a decade now, the human rights of labour migrants have been viewed through the lens of the FIFA World Cup alone. This achieved a relentless spotlight on the decades-old labour migration system that saw little or no reforms to protect the rights of migrants. Over this period criticism of the Kafala system has tried to address all of it too broadly or has focused on one aspect to the exclusion of others. Whatever the advocacy strategy had been, its outcome is unprecedented for the region – compelling Qatar to be more open to scrutiny and respond to criticism, inviting to the table international organisations, international unions, international NGOs, international media… the keyword being international.

Local unions remain an unachievable goal, local civil society is mute, and local media is censored. Local businesses had no say in the Kafala reform process and were held to little or no account, probably for the same reason they were not part of the process.

Qatar is estimated to have spent US$220 billion in the run-up to the World Cup. The bulk of those projects were awarded to companies outside of the region, which partnered with local businesses as required. Post-World Cup, neither Qatar’s nor the rest of the GCC’s appetite for expansion is likely to wane. According to Economist Intelligence projects already underway in GCC are worth about US$2.65 trillion as of the first half of 2022. Saudi Arabia and the UAE account for 60% and 20% respectively of planned projects.

Governments of the global north actively solicit business in Gulf states for companies headquartered in their countries while taking a duplicitous moral high ground in their discourse around human rights. Case in point: as BHRRC highlighted, the UK’s free trade agreement negotiations with the GCC states “raises a number of concerns relating to human rights; the safeguards that currently feature within UK FTAs are insufficient to ensure that additional trade will not come at the expense of rights.”

So how does one hold businesses accountable in a socio-economic environment that prevents any kind of meaningful critique and engagement, and in autocratic regimes in which the conventional stakeholders in a democratic process such as unions, civil society, and free media have no place? Post-World Cup, the focus must shift to the businesses and governments that profit from exploitative labour practices in the GCC states.

Increasingly, large corporations are shying away from direct recruitment, opting to subcontract the bulk of jobs required to complete a project thereby deflecting responsibility. Scouting source markets, recruiting from poorer countries and management of thousands of lower-income workers are outsourced to those who may adopt poor practices to which bigger corporations will turn a blind eye. When irregularities are exposed, throwing money at the problem under the pretext of recruitment fee reimbursement is seen as a salve. The practices themselves are never challenged or changed.

We have also seen that the recruitment process is bookended by HR consultants (a euphemism for recruitment agents) at the destination and agents at the origin. These consultants are part of the local business groups multinational corporations partner with. Recorded cases of wage theft (by both Migrant-Rights.Org and BHRRC) in the last few years reveal the business groups which failed to pay workers held some of the largest contracts in the GCC, but escaped scrutiny by both the state and the critical projects run by multinational corporations. Dealing with errant contractors after the fact usually involves blacklisting, rarely ensuring workers' rights and due wages are protected.

Wage theft has a deadly impact on more than just the individual. With every passing month without wages, the family suffers increasing losses – children dropping out of schools, child labour, the elderly losing health care and the psychological impact on the breadwinner. If and when wages are paid after a complaints process, it is rarely in total, and not often with all the end-of-service benefits. Without pension schemes and any other form of social security, migrant workers are almost solely dependent on EoS benefits to tide them over their retirement or gaps in employment. Big businesses have a responsibility to consider all of this while budgeting, ensuring there is a fund available to cover an extenuating circumstance which will negatively affect the most vulnerable.

Some labour rights issues are beyond the scope of what a multinational corporation can weigh in on – legislative reforms for one. But businesses can and must play a bigger role in ensuring the laws which do exist are not violated in their supply chain.

Transnational companies cannot pick and choose which national legislations and practices suit their needs best. It is imperative they bring with them the best global practices. The actual protection of the human rights of labour migrants, however, is squarely the responsibility of the state. That cannot be outsourced to corporations, but governments must put in place strong measures to hold them accountable, along the lines of France’s Duty of Vigilance law.

Vani Saraswathi, Editor-at-Large and Director of Projects, Migrant-Rights.Org, and the author of Stories of Origin: The Invisible Lives of Migrants in the Gulf