Sometimes, a severe crisis may indeed help countries launch very important reforms. Such may be the case with the Qatari announcement to become the first Gulf state to effectively abolish the region’s onerous kafala system. That system of labor sponsorship is denounced as a form of modern slavery.
In a rare kudo, Qatar’s fiercest labor critic, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), hailed a Qatari announcement that it was introducing far-reaching reforms as a “breakthrough.”
The reforms that have yet to be enshrined in law would include safeguards preventing employers from unilaterally changing labor contracts, abolish exit visas, introduce a minimum wage, as well as keep employers from controlling workers’ documents.
The ITUC and human rights groups have very publicly campaigned for labor reform and abolition of kafala ever since FIFA awarded Qatar the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup in December 2010.
Despite activists’ frustration at the slow pace of change in Qatar since then, Qatar’s response to the criticism, if it is fully acted upon, could produce a rare World Cup that leaves a true legacy of social and economic change.
Dealing with, not ignoring the critics
As it stands, Qatar became the first autocratic Gulf state to engage with its critics rather than refusing to talk to them and barring them entry to the country. The latter approach is the standard practice in most of the Gulf countries.
The timing of the promised reforms was likely determined by Qatar’s need to fend off being penalized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as well as the almost five month-old Gulf crisis that pits the Gulf state against an alliance led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The ILO had threatened to slap Qatar with one its harshest penalties, the creation of a Commission of Inquiry, if the Gulf state failed to credibly address criticism of its labor regime by the time the group meets in November. That may not sound very threatening, but the ILO creates such a commission only in rare instances.
Killing two birds with one stone
The announced reforms kill two birds with one stone. They are likely to satisfy the ILO, while allowing Qatar to project itself internationally as a good international citizen. This is especially crucial at a time that the UAE-Saudi alliance have imposed a diplomatic and economic boycott on the country.
If implemented, the labor reforms would also weaken a covert UAE-Saudi campaign to persuade world soccer body FIFA to deprive Qatar of its World Cup hosting rights.
In their “pot is blaming the kettle for being black” campaign, Qatar’s two principal detractors have worked diligently to use the labor issue against the World Cup being held in the Gulf state.
Dubai’s idiosyncratic police chief, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, went as far as saying that the UAE and Saudi Arabia would lift their boycott if Qatar surrendered its hosting rights – a demand that was rejected by Qatar out of hand.
Claiming Qatar’s announced reforms as a trade union victory, ITUC general secretary Sharon Burrow said that:
the new guidance from Qatar signals the start of real reforms in Qatar which will bring to an end the use of modern slavery and puts the country on the pathway to meeting its international legal obligations nation on workers’ rights. Following discussions in Doha there is a clear government commitment to normalize industrial protections for migrant workers.
More cautious welcomes
While the ITUC was unequivocal in its praise of Qatar, human rights groups like Amnesty International extended a more cautious welcome to Qatar’s planned reforms.
An Amnesty International spokesperson suggested that it was too early to judge. “We are not able to assess the significance of these developments until we have seen the full details of the government’s commitments. However, today’s announcements have clear potential to have a positive impact on migrant workers’ lives, depending on how they’re implemented,” the spokesperson said.
Former Human Rights Watch Gulf expert Nicholas McGeehan noted that Qatar’s road towards labor reform has been littered with promises that were either partially kept or not fulfilled at all.
“All we have today are promises, and promises have been broken before. I feel we need to put expressions of optimism on hold until we see full details, changes in the law where necessary and a time frame for promised reforms to be implemented,” Mr. McGeehan said.
Why this time may be different
Against the backdrop of the Gulf crisis, Qatar has a vested interest in making good on its promises. Labor reform would project the state, despite being an autocracy, as a 21st century nation that embraces some degree of change not only for others in the greater Middle East, but also for itself.
This could potentially lead to the 2022 World Cup becoming that rare mega-sporting event to have served as a catalyst of change. That would be a legacy that international sporting associations aspire to through major tournaments, but seldom achieve.
Sometimes, a severe crisis may indeed help countries launch very important reforms.
Qatar is the first autocratic Gulf state to engage with its critics rather than refusing to talk to them and barring them from the country.
Qatar’s road towards labor reform has been littered with promises that were either partially kept or not fulfilled at all.
The 2022 World Cup could become that rare mega-sporting event to have served as a catalyst of change.