With the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, many around the world have turned their focus to the labor rights of the country’s migrant workers after widespread reports of their mistreatment. In fact, since 2014 there has been a complaint against Qatar at the International Labor Organization (ILO) alleging non-observance of ILO conventions related to forced labor and occupational safety inspections. In response, Qatar has taken initial steps to strengthen its compliance with international labor standards and implement extensive labor reforms.
On November 8, ILO’s tripartite representatives (governments, employers and workers), including the United States, agreed to close the complaint in partial recognition of Qatar’s agreement to a three-year cooperation program in which they have committed to institute further reforms. Most importantly, Qatar pledged to reform its kafala(sponsorship) system, under which unskilled migrant workers cannot change employers or leave the country without the consent of their sponsor. The kafala system is in place in many countries throughout the Gulf region, and so reforms to the system in Qatar would mark a significant achievement in improving labor standards in the region.
The ambitious technical cooperation program with ILO will include reforms aimed at “improvement in payment of wages, enhanced labor inspection and Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) systems, refinement of the contractual system that replaced the kafala system and to improve labor recruitment procedures, increased prevention, protection and prosecution against forced labor, and promotion of the workers’ voice.” In addition, Qatar agreed to introduce a minimum wage for the first time, to establish a fund that will guarantee payment of late wages, and to work directly with migrant workers to renew residence permits.
The U.S. government delivered a plenary statement supporting the new agreement but also emphasizing the need to hold Qatar accountable to implementing and reporting regularly on these reforms. The United States also will seek to encourage Qatar to build on reforms such as Law No. 21 of 2015, which removed some constraints on migrant workers trying to change employers and freely exit the country. The new ILO cooperation program has the potential to be an effective tool in reforming migrant workers’ rights in Qatar and serving as a positive example for the region.
About the Author: Steve Moody is the Director of the Office of International Labor Affairs in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.