In an Inhospitable Land
The government seems hardly concerned about a population that has helped keep the economy afloat
The Kathmandu Post
27 March 2014
The first indication of how bad things are in Qatar came with the Human Rights Watch report in June 2012, ‘Building a Better World Cup: Protecting Migrant Workers in Qatar Ahead of FIFA 2022’. Despite all disclaimers by the Qatari authorities since then and also claims to be working on improving standards, the situation seems to have remained quite unchanged.
The last six months have seen three more damning revelations. Beginning with the headline-grabbing story in The Guardian, ‘Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup “slaves”’ (September 2013), then Amnesty International’s ‘The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s Construction Sector Ahead of the World Cup’ (November 2013), and now the influential International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) ‘The Case against Qatar: Host of the FIFA 2022 World Cup’ (March 2014), all have highlighted the other side of Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 event.
The bad press and increasing vilification in the international arena seem to have spurred Qatar to finally do something about its labour policies as they pertain to foreign workers. As reported by a visiting European Parliament delegation in Qatar a day after the ITUC report was out, a ‘deep revision’ of the old system is in the works and that it would come into effect in the ‘not too distant future’.
The root of evil
The ‘old system’ is the kafala system, which is best translated as one of sponsorship.
In place in all the countries in the Gulf region, it has its origins in the well-known tradition of Bedouin hospitality, whereby the sponsor, or kafil, takes full responsibility for their guests, including, now, guest workers, during their stay in the country. But with the influx of millions of vulnerable foreign labourers, the system has degenerated into a mechanism for the sponsor to be in complete control of the lives of the workers. The latter remain tied to their sponsor, ie, the employer, throughout the contract period, and they cannot change jobs, leave the country or even open a bank account without permission (although it has now become possible in Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain to switch employers after a certain period of time has elapsed).
Domestic workers are even worse off since they are not covered by the host country’s labour laws, which provide a modicum of protection to other workers. In effect, workers are no more than the ‘property’ of their employers, and hence the appellation ‘modern slavery’ to the working and living conditions in places like Qatar.
This kafala system is at the root of all the suffering of foreign workers. The Amnesty International report listed some of the travails that await foreign workers on their arrival in Qatar, including terms and conditions being different from that promised during the recruitment process; workers not being paid for months or not at all; risk of being arrested for being ‘undocumented’ (which happens when employers do not help workers receive residency permits or renew the same); the passports of workers being confiscated to prevent their leaving the country (to do which they need an ‘exit permit’ issued by the employer in any case), etc.
Not just labourers
For the record, it is not only lowly labourers from countries like Nepal who fall victim to this system. Corporate officials, too, live and work under the kafala system, which can easily be used against them if need be. Two prominent examples are that of French professional footballer Zahir Belounis, who languished for nearly two years in Qatar after his employer, the El Jaish Sports Club, refused him permission to leave the country; and the intriguing case involving two employees of the Al Jazeera network, Canadian journalist Mahmoud Bouneb and his Moroccan wife, Malika Alouane, who are still in Qatar since their dismissal in September 2011.
The ITUC report is scathing. In her foreword, General Secretary Sharan Burrow writes of the living conditions: “Labour camps are run by slum landlords who rent them to companies, or are managed by the companies themselves. A camp boss or company security guard patrols the camp. Many do not even provide fresh water. I tasted the salty water used for drinking and washing…The Industrial Area, 25 km from downtown Doha is a grid of 52 streets lined with buses to transport workers to sites, JCBs [excavators] and hazardous machinery. Behind the compounds with the machinery are single and sometimes double storey buildings with rooms of eight to twelve workers, one toilet and washing area and one kitchen. Sixty percent of labour camps in the Industrial Area are home to Nepali workers…Grown men said they were treated like animals, living like horses in a stable.”
Reports of abuses suffered by our compatriots in foreign countries are routine in the Nepali media, as are stories of how workers have been duped by recruitment agencies back home. Yet, our government seems hardly concerned about a population that, by all accounts, has helped keep the national economy afloat thus far. Granted, sending fact-finding missions to register concern about the treatment of its citizens is all it can do since Nepal does not have the kind of clout to force the issue with worker-receiving countries (although the undiplomatic statement by our then ambassador to Qatar, describing it as an ‘open jail’, has had an impact of a different sort). Nepal will have to rely on international instruments and organisations and on other similarly placed but more powerful countries, such as India, on that score.
But given that a large part of the problem lies within the country with unscrupulous recruitment agencies and their equally unscrupulous colluders in government departments responsible for regulating them, much of the suffering could be controlled by a government that is supposed to act on behalf of all Nepalis, including the toiling masses abroad. A week ago, the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority arrested nine officials from the Department of Foreign Employment but their partners in the alleged crimes, the recruitment agencies, have yet to receive the summons from any official body. The complete paralysis of our government machinery was highlighted by a news item recently in this paper headlined ‘In oil-rich Qatar, Nepali mission runs out of money to buy fuel’. That is the state of an embassy that is meant to serve nearly half a million Nepalis whose fate has been highlighted in the reports mentioned above. Enough said.