On August 30, Qatar amended its labour laws, increasing its minimum wage to 1,000 riyals (about Rs 20,000) for all workers in the gas-rich kingdom, replacing a temporary wage of 750 riyals introduced in 2017. Under the new legislation, companies are required to also provide workers with free food and housing or pay them an additional 500 riyals for rent and 300 riyals for provisions.

In another significant development, announced the same day, the 2022 football World Cup host scrapped a longstanding requirement for migrants to get their employer’s consent (in the form of a no-objection certificate) to change jobs and represents a significant step towards dismantling the country’s kafala system.

All migrant worker contracts, across the six Gulf states, are regulated by a labour sponsorship system called the “kafala”. Despite notable variations in its form, one of the kafala’s defining features is that every migrant worker must have a specific job and a sponsoring employer under whom they work – neither of which can be changed easily.

For decades, Qatar, like its wealthy Gulf neighbours, has depended on armies of low-wage transient workers from countries like India, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Kenya to mop floors, paint walls, serve tables, supply medicine, deliver food, and care for pets, children and the elderly. Ninety-five per cent of Qatar’s two million-plus labour force is foreign nationals. Of that number, about 700,000 workers are Indian.

Qatar was placed under review by the International Labour Organization in 2016 for non-observance of the Forced Labour Convention (No. 29). A year later, facing a possible United Nations investigation, Qatar signed a cooperation agreement with the International Labour Organization. Since then the government has passed a wide set of reforms: clearing a new domestic worker’s law, putting an end to the exit-permit system, and setting up new wage remedy mechanisms to address wage claims. The implementation of these laws is still a problem.

The Wage Protection System

For labourers in Qatar, a wage problem is likely to be their most common complaint. Violations can take a number of forms including non-payment or underpayment of wages, overtime, allowances and gratuity. All workers, except for certain categories including domestic workers, agriculture workers and individuals employed in government ministries must be paid at least once a month through the Wage Protection System – an electronic salary transfer software linked to a worker’s bank account.

The system tracks wage payments and is supposed to flags inaccurate and late payments. On receiving an alert, labour officers of the Wage Protection System can speak to the employer, summon them for a meeting, or even refer the case to the police.

However, the system has a number of issues. The monitoring unit is understaffed and in November 2018, due to a backlog, officers were still reviewing cases from January that year. An estimated 700,000 workers – about a third of the total workforce – mainly domestic and agriculture workers are not registered under the system, and any wages paid to them are never tracked.

The system alerts are not properly configured. For years, it only registered an underpayment alert if a worker is paid less than 50 riyals. On September 14, the International Labour Organization announced further improvements to the system. These include wage-violation alerts if workers are paid below the new minimum wage, improved monitoring and harsher penalties for non-payment.

More staff can be recruited and new alerts can easily be configured, but it is unclear how far Qatar will go to hold its influential and wealthy businesses accountable.

According to United States State Department reports, the country has not prosecuted a single Qatari employer or recruitment agency for forced labour since 2017, when the country decided to overhaul its labour system.

This April, despite an $824 million state wage allocation budget to companies affected by the pandemic, a new Human Rights Watch report found that unpaid salaries and other wage-related complaints were both persistent and widespread among the 60 businesses it surveyed.

In 2018, about 2,000 unpaid labourers employed in three major cleaning and infrastructure companies in Qatar returned home penniless after labour dispute committees – new wage tribunals set up to adjudicate complaints within six weeks – failed to resolve cases for months, said Amnesty International, a human rights NGO.

The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha was refurbished ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup. Photo credit: AFP

Violation of rights

The poor working and living conditions of its migrant workforce including issues of forced labour, rundown labour accommodations and high death rates – which climatologists and doctors suspect are linked to labourers toiling in Doha’s blistering temperatures – have been simmering in the background since 2010, when the country was awarded hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup.

Since then, as the demand for cheap labour has increased, and tens of thousands of new workers have been hired, money transfers to origin countries like India have more than doubled. In 2010, Indian nationals in Qatar sent home over $1.7 billion dollars in remittances. In 2018, that figure was over $4.3 billion.

But India prefers to look away when rights are violated, or denies they occur at all. When Qatar was criticised for the deaths of young labourers toiling to build its World Cup stadiums, the Indian embassy in Doha insisted that the death toll was “normal”. The embassy never clarified who the deceased labourers were, or how they died. The embassy has since admitted it never investigated the deaths.

The recruitment of Indian workers is regulated by an outdated migration law and bilateral labour agreements. The India-Qatar labour deal was signed in 1985. The bilateral agreement, and an additional protocol negotiated in 2007, are vaguely worded. They do not reflect Qatar’s new commitments or the major issues plaguing workers such as false contracts, deceptive job offers or the practice of passport confiscation.

The Emigration Act 1983 still permits India-registered recruitment agencies to charge workers’ service fees, despite laws in Qatar and other Gulf countries, explicitly prohibiting these payments. Partly because the sector is poorly regulated in India, workers are charged exorbitant fees, who then have no choice but to take out recruitment loans, which they then spend years clearing up, sending less money home, and sometimes falling deeper into poverty.

Qatar’s new wage law – the Gulf region’s only non-discriminatory minimum wage – could ensure all workers have a chance at a decent wage and livelihood, provided Qatar works out how to implement the wage and hold wage violators accountable.

Nikhil Eapen is a freelance journalist and a researcher at Equidem, a labour-rights organisation.