Ever since Qatar won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2010, the world's attention – especially western media attention – turned against Qatar for its treatment of migrant workers. The tiny, natural-gas-rich emirate's population increased nearly fivefold and its economy grew from $74 billion in 2003 to over $300 billion in 2017. Some sources suggest that the expatriate population is approximately 86 to 90 per cent. There was a massive influx of low-income, blue collar workers from South Asia, South-East Asia and some parts of Sub-Saharan African to build the booming infrastructure.
Qatar's labour policies, or the so-called Kafala system, were regressive and exploitative. The manpower companies in both sending and receiving countries exploited the vulnerabilities of these cash-strapped migrant workers. On their arrival, their passports were confiscated and they were forced to live in inhospitable dwellings and work in inhumane conditions. These workers were robbed of their dignity and respect in the community. They are disposable, voiceless and vulnerable. The labour policies were so rigid – employers were unwilling to let go of their employees if they found better employment opportunities and even the transfer process is unbearably long and bureaucratically mundane.
However, winning the World Cup bid slowly changed the direction of the wind in favour of these workers. Organisations like the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continue to expose the brutality of these exploitative labour systems. International media outlets were hawkishly waiting for an opportunity to smear Qatar. Followed by this spate of explosive articles that tarnished Qatar's image, senior policy officials debated – with the support of the ILO – a better solution which at the same time would maintain authority and control over the workers and expatriate community.
Progressive drafts were proposed but were watered down by the committee members who had vested interests in the status quo. The pace of reform was incremental and sluggishly slow. Looking at the lukewarm interest in reforming labour policies, in 2014 a complaint was lodged against Qatar by the ILO alleging Qatar's non-observance of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), and the Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81). Qatar is a signatory to both conventions.
Yet Qatar realised that is quickly losing its soft power in the international arena and there is no option left except to make genuine reform. Since 2015, labour policies were amended several times – the government decided to make piecemeal changes and focused mostly on quick fixes. The number of labour inspectors was increased and a wage protection system was implemented which will prevent companies from withholding or delaying salaries for workers. However, many private companies find ways to circumvent this system.
Transfer of sponsorship is another critical issue that haunted the expatriate population for a long time. There was a general tendency by big and influential conglomerates to maintain the status quo, which delayed by several years the easing of labour transfers from one employer to another. However, in the face of mounting pressure from the international media and constant negative coverage, Qatar declared in December 2016 that it would end the Kafala system. Yet looking in detail reveals that things remain the same. The transfer of labour process is far from straightforward and a great deal of paperwork still needs to be done. The process is tiresome – you are still at the mercy of someone.
In June 2017, three Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – imposed a harsh blockade against Qatar, cutting off long-standing diplomatic and trade relationships. In the days that followed the imposition of the blockade, not only citizens but also residents expressed solidarity and loyalty to the leadership of Qatar. Yet the State quickly realised two important things: the tiny, local population is a threat to national security and it is imperative to maintain a positive relationship between State and residents, instead of a disposable relationship that prevailed for decades.
The blockade acted as a game changer and the winds shifted direction again, this time in favour of not only of blue collar workers but also white collar expatriates and long-term residents in Qatar. One of the remarkable, although symbolic, differences is the representation of residents in international platforms. The Emir of Qatar began his address at the 72nd and 73rd United Nations General Assembly meeting as a representative of Qatari citizens and residents. This representation won the hearts and minds of thousands of expatriates in Qatar.
In August 2017, Qatar surprised by announcing that it is considering plans to develop a permanent residency program for expatriates. A committee was set up to oversee the development of draft legislation. Usually developing legislation take time, for example, the pace of labour reforms which began in 2013. Yet within a year, the Emir had announced the permanent residency law, under which expatriates would be granted permanent residency (PR) if they fulfil one of the six categories. Anyone with PR will be treated equally in terms of education, employment and health benefits. PR holders can also invest in various sectors and own property. The political economy behind this move is to widen Qatar's domestic consumer base and ensure sustained economic growth in the face of shrinking petroleum revenues. Yet within the GCC, this PR law remains revolutionary and a clear contradiction to the age-old GCC policies. This indicates that Qatar will no longer weigh on GCC members and will develop policies independent of its GCC neighbours, not only related to its security and foreign policy but also in domestic affairs. On 28 October, the long-awaited policy of leaving the country without an exit permit came into force. Except the 5 per cent of selected employees in each country (that will be determined by the company), everyone can now leave the country without an exit permit. You are no longer at the mercy of your employer.
Since 2010, Qatar has traversed a long, tumultuous and difficult road in making positive labour reforms. It still has a long way to go. Qatar must recognise the role of white-and blue-collar expatriates in nation building and continue to develop mechanisms that ensure respect and dignity. Also, the minimum wage for blue-collar workers – an often-ignored issue – must be quickly considered to improve the living and working standards of workers. Yet one cannot dismiss the developments that have taken place in the last decade. Considering the trajectory of change, Qatar will become a role model for the rest of the region in ensuring dignity and human rights for all. The new permanent residency law is a welcome addition to the many positive developments that have occurred in the aftermath of the blockade. Qatar has demonstrated extraordinary leadership and moral courage and hopes this will bring positive change in the lives of all expatriates.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.