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“India should be more active in protecting its workers”

In many Gulf nations, a bulk of the workforce often comprises of foreign workers; especially Indians. Despite the presence of a huge expat-labour based economy and strict labour laws, rights of immigrant workers are regularly compromised by the employers in many of these countries. Aakash Jayaprakash from the Qatar Foundation talks to Gateway House’s Anirudh Menon on Qatar’s existing labour laws; the Foundation and the government’s efforts towards improving labour practises in the country; infrastructure development for the 2022 FIFA World Cup; and the country’s Qatarization Policy.

Q: What has been the impact of the Arab Uprisings on Qatar, politically, economically and strategically?

The Arab Uprisings saw little to no traction in Qatar as the Qatari government ensures that its citizens are given the highest quality of life in terms of education, health care, social support and prioritized employment opportunities. Under such circumstances, and with the highest GDP per capita in the world, most Qataris are quite content. It’s hard to imagine what an opposition can offer that is better than this. However, political participation of Qataris has been low, but now elections for some seats in the Shurah (Advisory) Council are scheduled to take place in 2013. Although this was supposed to occur much earlier, perhaps the tensions in the region encouraged the state to speed things up. Qatar played an important role in the Libyan revolution, and the Qatari flag was among the first to be raised in Gaddafi’s palace. The state has been quite active in supporting Libyans and Syrians, but had a different take on situations in neighboring countries.

Q: Qatar won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Apart from the enormous work underway in infrastructure, this requires soft infrastructure as well such as the drafting of good labour practices for the stadia and hotels that are being built. Given Qatar’s expat-labour based economy and the typical work-visa transgressions that come with it, how is Qatar managing this massive effort?

Large international events like the FIFA World Cup serve as a catalyst for change and development. While a Qatar National Vision exists with goals for different developmental arenas, this global event pushes for rapid change in a much shorter span of time. Qatar is building a metro and railway system from scratch, as well as a new city called Lusail which is rising from the desert sands in the north of Doha. The opening and final matches of the 2022 World Cup will be played at stadiums here. Such infrastructural development is important for the World Cup, but ultimately for the development of Qatar.

It is crucial to understand that Qatar does have appropriate labour laws and regulations in place. But, what is challenging is their enforcement. The Qatar Foundation (QF) is at the forefront of leading change in terms of labour practices in Qatar, with its recently launched Mandatory Welfare Standards. This system addresses the worker’s migration cycle; recruitment from home countries, their housing and nutrition, on-site safety and finally repatriation. The standard stipulates workers to be in full possession of their passports; and get equal pay for equal work irrespective of their nationality, gender, ethnic origin, race, religion or legal status. This is coupled with a newly formed unit within QF that will help enforce and conduct regular inspections of all contractors. I urge you to read the QF Worker Welfare charter, and the full document highlighting standards for workers.

In terms of managing the FIFA World Cup focused efforts, the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee also has a worker welfare charter, and has publicly stated that it is committed to international labour standards. Mr. Hassan Al-Thawadi, Secretary General, of the committee announced that all contractors would be required to adhere to international labour laws. The Supreme Committee had stated that the safety, health and dignity of all workers on their projects are a top priority.

Q: Simultaneously, Qatar has put into motion, a Qatarization policy. How will that impact the build out of the World Cup infrastructure not just by Qatari companies, but multinational ones, and even Indian companies?

The Qatarization policy, much like Emiratisation and other policies in the GCC, is created to ensure that Qatari citizens are given a priority in the work place. In a country where citizens are outnumbered by almost three to one, this is an understandable position. The World Cup build out is going to see development on an unprecedented scale, and it will need global involvement. I doubt this particular policy would affect infrastructure development much. Indian companies have excellent opportunities in Qatar, provided they meet the expectations and standards laid out in the tender processes.

It is a good time for Indian enterprises to take a serious look at business opportunities present in Qatar. Adhering to the labour standards highlighted by Qatar Foundation would ensure a more long-term relationship for Indian companies in Qatar. The sheer scale of this endeavour will require global partners to engage with Qatar, and I believe India has plenty to offer in terms of skill and experience.

Q: Generally, unskilled workers form a major part of the labour force in Qatar. What kind of welfare and immigration challenges do they face? How is Qatar addressing unethical employment practices?  Can Qatar set the tone for a new, improved labour regime for the West Asian region?

I think you are referring to blue-collar workers who are engaged in construction and service sectors in Qatar. I don’t like the label ’unskilled’ because all professions require a skilled element. The construction business is quite specialised, and every task necessitates skill. These workers form the majority of the expatriates in Qatar, and non-citizens comprise about 90% of the population. Many of these workers face a myriad of challenges. Many receive different wages than promised in their home countries; many receive inadequate food and many are overworked. Almost every single ‘labour camp’ housing facility is filled with bunk beds which is a blatant violation of Qatari labour law. These rooms can have anywhere from five to 18 workers. Every non-citizen in Qatar requires an exit permission to leave the country, but this issue affects poorer workers most as their employers usually hold their passports (again in violation of law), and they may or may not grant an exit permit. The Ministry of Interior can override the employer’s authority and issue an exit permit, but this still cannot be done without granting the worker their passport.

I want to clarify that there are plenty of locally owned companies but there are also other nationalities, including many Indian run businesses who exploit these workers. There is a serious misconception that occurs in international media that points the finger solely at Qataris, which is simply not true. Qatar can do a lot to be a beacon of change in this regard, and has been pursuing it. Engineer Saad Al Muhannadi, vice-president of QF’s Capital Projects and Facilities Management division, said: “Qatar Foundation aspires to set an example for the ethical treatment of workers nationwide.”

However, the onus is also on the governments of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and other main sending countries, to take a more active stance in protecting their citizens. India in particular should be more active in protecting its workers. India is the largest remittance receiver on the planet, and a significant percentage of these remittances come from these workers in the Gulf who make low salaries, and endure greatly. The largest destination for remittances from Qatar between 2006 and 2012 was India since Indians are the single largest demographic group in Qatar. Sadly, this very important issue does not get the attention it deserves in India.

Q: What is the contribution of Indians in the education and research institutions housed in the ‘Education City’ supported by Qatar Foundation?

Education City in Qatar Foundation is an extremely diverse entity with people from all over the world. Indian students have been involved with some excellent research projects in Education City and have contributed significantly to its development. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Indian workers have helped construct Education City, and there are plenty of other Indian professionals who have played key roles as well.

In the recent graduating class of Hamad bin Khalifa University, the third largest demographic group of graduates after Qataris and Egyptians, were Indian students. When I was in Georgetown University, I was involved in a research project funded by the Qatar Foundation with Dr. Ganesh Seshan, who is of Indian origin. The research project was focused on financial habits of low-income migrant workers, and we were able to identify the key financial habits of workers, predominantly from Kerala. The study went on for about four years, and there were four other Indian students who also were involved in the research. We conducted a field visit to Kerala and interviewed the households of these poor migrants in 2008, and our study helped develop a detailed financial literacy curriculum that has been tested, and proven to improve financial behaviors of low-income migrants and their families. Our study also involved students from Bangladesh, Syria and Myanmar who contributed immensely. Our financial literacy product was quite successful, and is now being utilised at the grassroots level in Nepal and Sri Lanka to develop financial habits of rural areas there.

Aakash Jayaprakash is currently working with the Qatar Foundation’s newly launched Migrant Worker Welfare Initiative.

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