Construction workers from India and Nepal are believed to make up the largest contingent of migrants in Qatar, building an estimated $150 billion worth of buildings and infrastructure in the ambitious Gulf nation over the next decade.
But even as global media and organizations speculate on poor—some say slavery-like—working conditions and other risk factors that they say have spiked fatalities over the past several years, home-country governments are mixed in their responses to the plight of their expatriates.
Of the estimated 1.5 million workers in the country, 600,000 come from the Indian subcontinent, according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs. But there is continuing speculation and controversy over the number of building-related deaths and the reasons for them.
A report sponsored by Qatar’s government found 964 deaths of migrants from India, Nepal and Bangladesh in 2012 and 2013 at sites connected to the country's hosting of the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament and related infrastructure projects. International-labor-organization statistics citing more than 1,200 fatalities are now cascading across the global internet.
The root of the worldwide controversy is the controversial Kafala system used in Qatar and other Gulf states, in which only employer rights are legally recognized and workers are restricted in changing jobs or leaving the country.
Probes into alleged corruption in award of the World Cup and other pressures on Qatar have spurred the government to respond to the worker situation.
The newly established Qatar Government Communications Office on June 29 said in a statement that “measurable progress has been made with regard to labor practices but much more needs to be done. The Council of Ministers will now prepare the final draft of the Kafala-reform legislation, which is expected to be completed before the end of 2015.”
The response prompted Amnesty International, which had been a harsh critic, to note that the Qatar government’s “measures to ensure the regular payment of workers … and to prevent passport confiscation are positive. If implemented, these proposals would improve conditions for workers.”
Reforms promised include replacing the current exit-permit system with an automated system through the Ministry of Interior and automatically granting those permits to employees after a 72-hour grace period.
There will also be an increase in penalty for passport confiscation to $13,700 from $2,700, but employers will have the right to object to an employee’s departure during this period.
The so-called “no objection” certificate that workers now must obtain from their employer or sponsor to change jobs is to be replaced with an “employment contract system” that will enable an employee to transfer to another employer at the end of a contract. The change also seeks to abolish the “two-year rule” that currently prevents workers from coming back to Qatar for two years after they have ended a contract.
While many are skeptical as to how and how soon the changes will be implemented into Kafala, some home-country governments of migrant workers, such as Nepal's, are speaking up.
“Of all the countries of origin, only Nepal has publicly called for an end to Kafala to protect its citizens," said Shoran Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, earlier last month. "Others should show the same courage as Nepal to speak out and act for their own people."
Online reports say the government of Nepal tries to set minimum wages for migrant laborers based on skill levels, but enforcement in Qatar is limited or nonexistent. Officials also are distracted by the impacts of recent quakes in the country, which have crippled local economies and further entice worker migration to better-paying Qatar despite the risks.
India’s response is muted, despite protests from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch South Asia, as geopolitics takes center stage. A spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry said last year in response to reports of rising fatalities that the "overwhelming number" of deaths were due to natural causes and were "normal."
Recently, a large local trade union approached India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj to intervene “so that various international laws for the workers are enforced.”
The sponsorship system and the slowness of legal proceedings mean that a migrant who is in dispute with an employer is at an impasse: The worker can neither continue to work nor return home. Some run away despite having their passports confiscated and seek refuge at their embassy, says the labor group.
“With Qatar’s construction boom continuing and the migrant-worker population set to expand to 2.5 million, the need for urgent reform is more pressing than ever,” it contends.