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Qatar - Systemic change 'needed to protect migrants'

Qatar has come under scrutiny over the deaths of foreign laborers on projects linked to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. But analyst Nandita Baruah says much more is needed for the working conditions of migrants to improve.

A recent investigation by the British daily The Guardian found that dozens of migrant laborers working on construction sites linked to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar have died over the past few months. According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), many of the 1.2 million migrant workers in the emirate of Qatar face abuse and exploitation.

Gulf countries have faced regular criticism in the past over their rules on migrant workers, but the 2022 World Cup has now put the international spotlight on the issue. In a DW interview, Nandita Baruah, an expert on labor migration at the Asia Foundation, explains that huge structural and systemic changes in the ways the Qatari government will be needed in order to protect these workers and improve their working and living conditions in the natural gas-rich state.

DW: What can you tell us about the allegations of exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar?

Nandita Baruah: The findings of a recent study conducted by the Asia Foundation entitled "Labor Migration: Trends and Practices" indicated that migrant workers from both Nepal and Bangladesh faced various forms of abuse and exploitation in Middle East countries.

The challenges and problems range from contractual issues, such as discrepancies in the labor contract, lack of medical care, no payment or a delay thereof, long working hours and poor working conditions to psychical and mental abuse by intermediary contractors or direct employees.

Nandita Baruah, expert on labor migration at the Asia Foundation. Copyright: Asia foundation

Baruah says Qatar's Kafala system takes away the worker's right to change employer

In some cases, the migrants were forced to return home prior to the completion of their contract due to a poor health state related to their working conditions. This often leaves migrants unable to earn the desired money to repay the loan which they took at high interest rate (up to 35 percent) from informal channels to fund their migration. Many eventually end up in a greater debt than prior to their migration.

However, one must point out that the cases of exploitation are not limited to Qatar. As official data from the Government of Nepal and the media reports have documented, similar conditions of exploitation can be found in other destination countries such as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

What are the main challenges faced by South Asian migrant workers?

The problems faced by migrant workers start with the lack of proper monitoring by the sending countries, which in turn opens the way for irregular practices in the selection and hiring process of the migrants. The recruiting agencies regularly flaunt the rules by falsifying necessary legal documents such as passports, work permits and contracts.

In the destination country the risk of exploitation is compounded by the "Kafala," or sponsorship system in the Gulf states which puts stringent controls over entry, stay and exit of migrant workers.

The Kafala has been known to perpetuate abuse and exploitation, as it takes away the worker's right to change employer. Furthermore, many Middle East countries have a restrictive legal environment, which impedes legal recourse and restricts the framework for negotiation between sending and receiving countries.

Despite the harsh working conditions, thousands of South Asians emigrate to wealthy Middle East countries in search of a better life. What are the main reasons behind this?

The drivers of labor migration are a combination of economic, political and social factors. Slow economic development and social inequity combined with political instability which promotes poor governance force many people from South Asian countries to migrate.

For women, in addition to economic factors, there are social and cultural practices which perpetuate gender-based violence and inhibit access to resources act as drivers for migration. The perceived favorable conditions abroad, inducement by agents, family and friends make them take an even greater risk.

What can be done to protect migrant workers and improve their working conditions?

Implementing a reliable rights framework for labor migration requires stronger governance efforts. In the labor sending countries, effective monitoring and regulatory systems need to be instituted to regulate malpractices by recruitment agencies and agents. Strong legal actions need to be taken against violators.

To better equip the migrant workers, governments and development partners need to invest in skills training that cater to the demand in the international labor market. Information dissemination to facilitate informed choices should be made available at the pre-decision making stage, and should be backed with effective pre-departure orientation.

The Qatari government recently announced that it will crack down on private construction companies which reportedly exploit foreign workforce. Do you think the situation will change in the future?

View of the Khalifa International Stadium and the 318 metre high Aspire Tower (right) in Doha, the capital city of Qatar, taken May 13, 2011.(Photo: dpa)

Baruah: 'Greater global pressure is necessary, especially from the countries participating in the World Cup'

The increased media attention to the abuse of migrant workers - which has now been linked to the 2022 FIFA World Cup - has put some pressure on Doha. However, substantive change would require huge structural and systemic change in the ways the Qatari government treats and views migrant workers.

I think greater global pressure is necessary, especially from the countries participating in the World Cup. We need to ask ourselves whether our conscience allows us to play in stadiums and facilities that have been built with the blood of migrant workers.

Nandita Baruah is an expert on gender, human rights, labor migration and human trafficking-related issues in South and Southeast Asia. She is currently Chief of Party at the Asia Foundation and has worked in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Nepal.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.