Improving labour conditions in Qatar

Dr. Jill Wells, EAP Senior Policy and Research Advisor

January 2014

Dr. Jill Wells

Dr. Jill Wells

Following the publication of EAP’s research into means of improving employment standards in construction in Qatar, Dr. Jill Wells considers the role international construction companies have in driving improved conditions for migrant labourers.

The tiny desert state of Qatar is planning to invest over US$ 200 billion in construction projects (including a metro system, new airport, expressways, hotels and stadiums) in the build-up to hosting the World Cup in 2022. But Qatar has a small local population of only around 300,000 and relies on migrant labour for the totality of its construction workforce. The estimated 500,000 workers who will be required for this massive construction programme are recruited on short term contracts mainly from low income countries in South Asia – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch has documented instances of exploitation and abuse of workers in Qatar’s construction industry. These problems have been widely attributed to the kafala (sponsorship) system that is common throughout the Gulf, as well as to the failure to guarantee the right of migrant workers to form or join trade unions. The eyes of the world will be on Qatar as a campaign gets underway by human rights activists and international trade unions to demand changes.

The Qatari government is sensitive to the issue and has shown its commitment to improving labour standards for its guest workers by passing the Qatar Labour Law 14 (2004), the Qatar Construction Specifications (2010) and various Ministerial decrees. However, the problem of ensuring compliance with labour laws in the construction industry, with its long chains of subcontracting, is well recognized and is not unique to Qatar. EAP has expertise in this area. We believe that international construction companies, who are the project managers and main contractors in Qatar, have a major role to play in driving improved conditions for migrant construction labourers. We are currently undertaking research with construction contractors in Qatar in order to explore the possibilities. The research involves two threads:

  1. Working with contractors to gain a deeper understanding of the practical challenges they face in monitoring and enforcing compliance with labour regulations across supply chains.
  2. Working with project managers to understand their pivotal role as intermediate agents between the public sector client and the main contractors in Qatar and their potential to help the client to set and enforce labour safeguards.

The research is funded by the Open Society Foundation and facilitated by the Qatar National Human Rights Committee. A report setting out the findings of the first phase has now been published and can be accessed here (Arabic version).