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Qatar's migrant workers: Progress for the wrong reasons is not progress

The boycott of Qatar has ensured that the tiny Gulf state has featured regularly in the news, but legislation passed last month saw headlines take a break from the allegations of Doha funding terrorism abroad, and instead looked closer to home. The new law grants legal protection to domestic workers in Qatar, most of whom are South and East Asian migrants, establishing working hour limits, free medical care and mandated paid leave.

The new legislation was welcomed by human rights organisations. Fabien Goa from the Refugee and Migrants' Rights team at Amnesty International said that the law was long overdue, particularly as domestic workers in the Gulf are some of the most vulnerable to abuse and subject to higher degrees of control. However, he emphasised that numerous grey areas need to be clarified.

"The main issue where the law falls short of international standards is the area of enforcement," he explained. "Domestic workers still do not have any enforcement mechanism or any place to raise grievances. The paper that a law is written on is only as good as long as workers can actually claim those rights."

The UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) has given Qatar until November to improve the working conditions of all migrant employees, who make up 70 per cent of the country's population, or face sanctions.

Read: Qatar says three workers die on army building site

The mistreatment of migrants in the region is well-documented and is by no means limited to Qatar. Most states in the Gulf operate a controversial system of kafala, labelled by critics as a form of modern day slavery, where workers are recruited from their countries of origin and are sponsored by their employer to come to the Middle East. Upon arrival, they are henceforth tethered to their employers, unable to change or quit jobs, or return home without authorisation. If a worker does so, the employer cancels the sponsorship, reducing the worker to the status of an illegal immigrant and liable for arrest if he or she tries to leave the country. As such, workers have no autonomy over their income, movement or welfare. Despite Qatar's claims at the end of last year to have replaced the kafala system with a new contract-based law for migrant workers, Goa says that in practice, the changes leave the current arrangement intact.

To add insult to injury, working conditions for migrants in the Gulf are appalling; from employees working 100 hours a week and leave being cancelled, to pay being withheld, passports confiscated and contracts changed once workers arrive. Numerous workers, especially domestic helpers, also report cases of cruelty from their employers, often in the form of verbal or physical abuse, such that in 2015, Indonesia announced it would not send any domestic staff to 21 Middle Eastern countries for fear of their treatment upon arrival.

With such dismal conditions, many see any change in the rights of workers as an occasion to rejoice. However, the extent of the deprivation that workers have been living in for over a decade prompts an obvious question: why is Qatar taking action now?

For many, the apparent answer lies in Qatar's hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Whilst pressure has been mounting on the issue of workers' rights for many years, the issue was not on the table for some time before the country came under the international spotlight; migrants currently work on a construction binge in the capital, in preparation for the expected one million football fans arriving in five years' time. The ILO raised doubts about the country's suitability to host one the world's biggest football tournament after Nepalese workers died at the rate of almost one a day in the summer of 2013, mainly from heart attacks, heart failures or workplace accidents. In 2014, the International Trade Union Confederation estimated that more than 4,000 workers could die in the run up to the World Cup if the Qatari government does not make the necessary changes.

Read: Indian worker dies after leaving Qatar World Cup venue

To retain its hosting of the event, Qatar agreed to implement reforms, including the abolition of the exit permit system and improvements to workers' accommodation and hygiene facilities. With the ILO deadline looming in November, whether such reforms, when fully implemented, will outlast the tournament remains to be seen.

Migrant employees have also become the latest weapon in the ongoing Gulf crisis, as the four countries leading a blockade against Doha, three of which have equally abysmal migrant rights' records themselves, seem to have suddenly become aware of the negative working conditions in Qatar.

The proof is in the publishing. Since the start of the boycott, the Saudi state-owned news station Al-Arabiya has published at least six different stories that highlight Qatar's abuse of foreign workers; such reports were virtually non-existent before. The same can be said for Emirati coverage of the issue which has been keen to publicise the "tragic situation of expatriate workers" in Qatar and has hinted at targeting Qatar in November when the ILO will make its decision on the government's progress.

Both states have conveniently overlooked their own treatment of migrant workers, who face conditions no better than those for which they criticise Doha. Saudi Arabia is the only country to have made no attempt to reform the kafala system, and after abandoning workers in desert camps last year had to resort to the Indian Air Force airlifting in food supplies and repatriating workers, a measure more suited to a war zone than aiding economic migrants. The UAE can boast nothing better, with conditions for workers being described by the Guardian as "an international scandal", and senior officials displaying reluctance to grant domestic workers a day off for fear that they will become involved in "illicit relationships".

So could Qatar's migrant reforms be prompted by a desire to trump its critics? If so, such a motivation would not bode well for its workers, who can expect little progress once such a strategy is no longer useful in Doha's war of words with its neighbours. Migrants are already bearing the brunt of the blockade, as reports of delayed wages and job insecurity spread throughout the workforce amid rising food prices. Half-hearted progress on their rights now will not compensate many for the lack of recognition of their contribution to Qatar; they demand swifter progress.

Whilst Qatar has taken steps to ensure the safety and security of its migrant employees, this must be a sustainable effort, not motivated by short term goals. Ultimately, migrants' rights ought to be recognised for their own intrinsic value, not merely as pawns in a wider political game. To an extent, the Gulf has largely built its economies on the backs of hard immigrant labour, which has also sustained their populations, enabling them to achieve a standard of luxury that workers themselves do not see. It is time for those states to value that contribution and enshrine in law what are only the most basic human rights that any state should afford its residents.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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