Monday, 2 June 2014

Qatar: Nikki Sinclaire MEP on Kafala and Slave Labour.

Qatar: Nikki Sinclaire MEP on Kafala and Slave Labour.

Qatar has a highly unusual economy. It is a nation of two million people with an 80% immigrant population. Only 6% of Qataris are economically active. Indians make up the largest share of the population with over half a million. 85% of those employed work 6 days a week, 10% work 7 days.

Unsurprisingly, 89% of Qatari people think that immigration is a positive thing.

The Kafala system requires all unskilled workers to have a Qatari sponsor, usually their employer, who assumes responsibility for their visa and legal status. This system has been widely condemned for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of the workers, as many employers take away passports and sexually abuse their workers with legal impunity. Many workers complain about not being properly paid, a situation recently confirmed in an Amnesty International report. 43% of migrant workers are employed through agencies, and in many cases, they will have taken out loans in order to get to Qatar.

This system is blind, deaf, and dumb when it comes to the plight of these imported workers. The private sector sees no reason to change the system, and cultural traditions are often cited as a reason to resist change. Religion is used as justification for attitudes on homosexuality, for example. There is no desire for trade unions, nor is there any genuine interest in human rights. 

In March of this year, I attended a two day Human Rights Delegation to the country to speak to the Government, civil society and the workers themselves about the claims of 'Slave Labour' that are being made.

I visited the Qatar Deportation Detention Centre, which was criticised by a UN Rapporteur last November as being overcrowded and unhygienic.  We were shown a propaganda film, and were told that most detainees spend only 48 hours there - 7 days if they choose to appeal against deportation. However, some inmates told us they had been there in excess of 7 days - and we saw 3 or 4 people sharing a bed. When I asked, I was told they like it that way, they find it "cosy".  I was told that there was other living space allocated, but it could not seen as it was a bad day. I was told that some foreign embassies "dump" people on the centre, which causes overcrowding. The foreign ambassadors I met strongly denied this.

Former inmates we met spoke of deplorable overcrowded conditions.

The Ministry of the Interior Human Rights Department claimed that all complaints were taken seriously, but a questionnaire for complainants that I was given allowed no opportunity to express any complaint.

After I tweeted comments about the response I received to my questions on LGBT issues, the head of our delegation was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and told that they were not happy with me.

The gentleman in charge of drawing up welfare standards for the 2022 World Cup standards disputed the suggestion that LGBT fans attending matches would be discriminated against. I find that hard to believe in a country where male homosexuality is a criminal offence. Otherwise, I was impressed by his obviously genuine desire that the tournament should be a catalyst for change. The Qatari bid was, after all, based on social and economic development.

Challenges were made re the allegations of bribery and the World Cup bid. The organising committee were dismissive and said they kept within the rules. Their sincerity in their reply did not impress me.

Qatar is preparing a radical overhaul of the Kafala system in response to mounting criticism.

The expected reform is likely to include shifting sponsorship of foreign workers, who constitute a majority of the tiny Gulf state's population, from individual employers to the government. It would also allow workers to seek alternative employment without permission of their sponsor after a period of notification.

However, this may merely amount, at the end of the day, to window dressing. Kafala will remain, although it may be renamed.

As we look to 2022, what can the international community do? Certain individual member states have leverage; particularly France, Germany, and the UK, but the Belgian ambassador was very candid in telling us that the EU has "no relevance" in addressing this issue. An issue that is not about politics, but about social and economic justice.