Qatar, along with its Gulf neighbors, has abstained from a United Nations vote to endorse a treaty tackling forced labor that was overwhelmingly endorsed by other countries.
Aimed at modernizing provisions contained in a 1930 convention, the protocol compels signatories to prevent and eliminate compulsory labor. It also sanctions perpetrators and requires nations who ratify the document to protect and compensate victims.
The charter covers all workers globally, but the update places specific emphasis on migrant workers and ending human trafficking. also It specifically mentions the need to shield expat workers from fraudulent and abusive recruitment practices.
Forced labor can take many forms, including women and girls compelled into domestic work and exploited for commercial sexual purposes. The International Labor Organisation broadly defines forced labor as any service provided under the threat of penalty that the worker is not performing voluntarily.
In a report on Qatar’s construction sector last year, Amnesty International documented several cases of abuse that it said met the definition of forced labor.
These include physical abuse and companies levying daily fines on employees for not attending work, even when the laborers had not been paid for months. It also found sponsors using their powers to prevent expats from leaving Qatar by confiscating their passports and withholding an exit permits in an effort to extract additional labor.
Additionally, Amnesty researchers found workers who had signed a contract in their home country, only to arrive in Qatar and be assigned to a different, lower-paying job – something the human rights organization asserted amounts to human trafficking.
While Thailand was the only country to actually vote against the treaty, Qatar – along with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and a handful of other nations – abstained.
Ratifying members pledged to develop a plan to fight forced labor in consultation with employers’ and workers’ organizations.
It also called on signatories to:
- Educate vulnerable individuals to help them avoid becoming victims;
- Educate employers so they do not become involved in forced labor practices;
- Ensure labor laws related to forced labor apply to all workers in all sectors of the economy;
- Strengthen labor inspection processes;
- Protect migrant workers from abuse during the recruitment process; and
- Address “the root causes and factors that heighten the risks of forced or compulsory labor.”
If Qatar had signed the document, some of the tenets would have compelled the country to significantly revise its laws. For example, one of the most common forms of “workers’ organizations” – unions – are effectively banned in this country.
Additionally, domestic workers are currently not covered by Qatar’s labor laws. And the country’s labor inspectors, which numbered slightly more than 150 last year, are forced to conduct multiple investigations a day and are hampered by language barriers, according to Amnesty.
The country said it wants to increase the number of inspectors to 300.
The decision to not sign the charter comes weeks Qatar found itself offside at the United Nations, where some three dozen states criticized the Gulf state, during a human rights review.
Meanwhile, a UN human rights expert who called on Qatar to abolish its kafala sponsorship system and allow workers to freely change employers has published a full report about his findings.
For its part, government authorities have proposed changes to make it easier for expats to leave the country and change jobs, but officials stopped short of nixing a system of exit visas and no-objection certificates for its foreign workforce.
The pledged changes come as international scrutiny on Qatar intensifies because it is hosting the 2022 World Cup. However, officials here said they are making the changes to adhere to the 2030 vision, and not due to outside pressure.
No reforms have been implemented yet, but earlier this month, Qatar’s foreign minister said changes are coming “soon.”