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  • 23 March, 2021

  • 5 Min Read

West Asia-Labour reforms

West Asia-Labour reforms


  • Not one of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states can cater to their labour market needs domestically.
  • Their dependence on migration is only set to increase with fertility rates falling.
  • Despite there being unemployment, the citizens of these countries are unlikely to step in and do the supposedly low-skilled, and definitely low-paid, jobs of the millions of migrants who work there.

The reality in Qatar

  • Qatar, the richest of the six countries in terms of per capita GDP, is the most dependent on migrant labour.
  • Nationals count for less than 15% of the 2.6 million population and about 7% of the labour market.
  • About 60% of the population lives in labour camps.
  • The Qatarisation (nationalising the workforce) plan only affects the most well-paid jobs in the private and public sector.
  • But there is enough to go around even after targets are met for the ‘expat’, usually well-heeled citizens of the global North.
  • This reality must be the basis of any analysis of the human rights of migrant workers in the country and the slew of reforms that Qatar has been boasting about.
  • The main reason for the growing demand to boycott Qatar as the host of the FIFA World Cup for 2022 is that the country treats its migrant workers poorly, resulting in destitution and unexplained deaths.
  • The problem is viewed as one of inadequate legal protection, and the solution is framed as reforming or abolishing the Kafala (sponsorship) system, without acknowledging the many facets of various laws and practices that are the foundation of this system.
  • The global scrutiny and demand for accountability does affect the emirate’s reputation, but not enough to lose its rich and influential friends.
  • There is now an increasing presence of UN agencies.
  • Qatar remains one of the few places where there is an opportunity for profitable economic participation for the big businesses headquartered in the North, and that can’t be jeopardised.
  • So, that leaves us with Asian and African countries (a steady source of cheap labour), which are facing climate change, loss of livelihoods, and increasing unemployment.
  • Understandably, they won’t stand up to countries from where much-needed remittances flow.
  • These are some of the reasons why a low minimum wage and allowing workers to exit the country or change jobs without the sponsor’s permission are celebrated.

Maintaining the status quo

  • But will Qatar’s response to these aspects in the shape of reforms remove exploitation of workers? The short answer is ‘no.’
  • Across the GCC, migrant labour is increasingly referred to as ‘temporary’ or ‘guest’.
  • While this may have made some sense a few decades ago, when Qatar and its neighbours were hosting 2,00,000-3,00,000 workers to meet their labour needs, it is unjustifiable when dependency on migrants is inarguably permanent, so much so that the entire economy will collapse without access to cheap labour.
  • In order to maintain the status quo, all the other complexities of the ‘Kafala’ have been ignored in the reforms.
  • There is no attempt to curb the unchecked powers of the kafeel, who can have the workers they sponsor arrested, detained and deported without due process.
  • Charges of absconding are used to keep workers in abusive employment or risk being criminalised as irregular.
  • There are no mechanisms to address rampant wage theft, despite the electronic payment systems.
  • Migrant domestic workers, mainly women, are excluded from the labour law.
  • They are trapped within households at the mercy of the employer and do not enjoy the most basic freedoms, including off days, mobility and access to modes of communication.
  • From domestic and care work, construction and hospitality, to nursing and maintenance, even if a quarter of the employed stop work for a week, Qatar will come to a standstill.


  • It is this fear that drives the GCC countries to exercise control over the most essential of their labour. So, celebrating reforms is questionable.
  • What Qatar is doing is making exploitative laws that enable forced labour more palatable.

Source: TH

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