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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 27
Labour rights and standards

What’s the story on labour rights in Qatar?

18 November 2022

In the run up to the FIFA World Cup, the eyes of the world are on Qatar, the first Middle East country to host the global football tournament. Yet much of the scrutiny is directed not at the event’s sporting aspects, but rather at the labour rights and working conditions of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who are involved in readying the infrastructure and services needed to host one of the world’s biggest sporting events.

The ILO has been closely involved in supporting a wide range of labour reforms in the country, through a technical cooperation programme with the State of Qatar which began in 2018. The programme has seen Qatar undertake comprehensive labour reforms to improve the conditions and rights of migrant workers, through adopting new legislation, introducing new or improved existing labour administration systems, and enhancing labour relations.

While this is still a work in progress, and there are gaps in implementation, the reforms have already yielded benefits for workers, employers and the economy more broadly.

Max Tuñón, head of the ILO Office in Doha and Chief Technical Adviser of the programme, joins us to discuss the labour reforms in Qatar.


-Hello, and welcome to a new edition of the ILO's Future of Work podcast.

I'm Salwa Kanaana.

We're in the run-up to the FIFA 2022 World Cup football

or soccer tournament,

undoubtedly, one of the world's biggest sporting events

and the eyes of the world have been drawn to Qatar,

the country hosting the 2022 tournament.

Much of the discourse has focused on labour rights and labour conditions

in the country.

With me today is Max Tunon, Head of the ILO Project Office in Qatar,

and the Chief Technical Advisor of the Technical Cooperation Programme

between the ILO and the State of Qatar.

Max, hello, and welcome to the Future of Work podcast.

How are you today?

-I'm doing very well, Salwa how are you?

-I'm very well, and thank you very much for joining us today.

To start, please give us some background about the programme that you manage.

When was this joint programme launched, and what does it work to achieve?

-Sure. The ILO opened up the office in Qatar in April of 2018.

We are supporting the government and other partners to develop

a very comprehensive and ambitious labour reform agenda.

The programme of work really touches on a number of areas of law and policy,

looking at enhancing existing institutions and building up new ones,

building up social dialogue

and cooperation with global unions and workers and employers on the ground.

In the past five years, we've seen significant change at the heart

of the labour reform agenda, or certainly the changes

to the kafala system.

Now, we never say that the kafala system has been abolished,

but we say that the most problematic elements

have been dismantled,

meaning that now workers can leave the country without permission

from their employers.

Most importantly, workers can change jobs without permission from their employers.

That, fundamentally, addresses that huge imbalance of power

between workers

and employers.

Now workers have the ability to change jobs, they can negotiate

for better working conditions and better living conditions,

and at the same time, employers are incentivized to provide better working

and living conditions and better wages in order to attract and retain

the workers.

It's really important to emphasize that these changes to the kafala system

are not only useful for workers but also benefit employers.

Employers can benefit from hiring workers locally

rather than relying on international recruitment

and thereby reducing the costs and the risks associated

with international recruitment, so, really, it's a win-win.

-Now, when you speak of workers,

who are you referring to specifically?

What group of workers in the country?

-Well, there are about 2 million migrant workers in Qatar.

Migrant workers make up 95% of the workforce in the private sector.

This migrant workforce is extremely global and diverse, meaning that they come

from all continents and they're in all sectors of the economy

and across all income levels.

Low-wage workers make up maybe half of this number,

so maybe a million low-wage workers, male and female.

The vast majority of those are coming from Asia, particularly South Asia,

but we see also growing migration flows from parts of Africa as well.

Low-wage workers who are more vulnerable

are working in sectors such as construction, security,

domestic work, et cetera.

It's really important to emphasize that these reforms benefit

and affect everyone, all workers.

When we talk about the ability to change jobs,

the ability to leave the country without permission from your employer,

the ability for workers to form or to be elected as representatives

in their companies.

These are changes that can affect workers in any sector of the economy

across all income levels.

-You mentioned domestic workers, what do we mean by domestic work,

and why is it singled out from other forms of work?

-There are maybe 200,000 or so domestic workers in the country,

workers within households.

There is a specific legislation that has been adopted in 2017

that provides protection for domestic workers.

It's the first legislation that was adopted in the country

to provide them with rights and to recognize domestic work as work.

These are both male and female domestic workers.

Obviously, because of the very nature of the work,

there are added vulnerabilities there.

One of the key issues that we still are looking to address is

how more domestic workers can benefit from the reforms.

The reforms around labour mobility, for example,

but also around the legislation protecting domestic workers

that govern working time and domestic workers' rights

to one day off a week at least.

There are still gaps when it comes to awareness among domestic workers

and among employers of domestic workers.

This is really one of our priorities.

How can we raise more awareness?

How can we ensure that these rights are respected?

We're working very closely with the IDWF,

the International Domestic Workers Federation.

They have a presence on the ground in Qatar,

helping to disseminate information to domestic workers,

building up networks of domestic workers across different nationality groups,

and also providing training and advisory services,

not only to the government but also to recruitment agencies who play

a vital role in the employment relationship

between employers and domestic workers.

-Can you tell us about the minimum wage in the country?

What developments have taken place on that front,

who does it apply to, and how significant is it?

-The non-discriminatory minimum wage came into force in March of 2021,

and it's really significant for three reasons.

Firstly, it's non-discriminatory, meaning it applies to all nationalities,

all sectors of work, including domestic work.

Secondly, it's quite unique in that it not only establishes

a minimum threshold for the basic wage but also minimum thresholds for the food

and accommodation allowances on top of that.

Thirdly, and very importantly,

the law establishes a minimum wage commission.

This commission will study the impact of the minimum wage

on a periodic basis and propose adjustments.

It's not set at this rate forever.

We've commissioned research in the middle of this year, which will inform the work

of this minimum wage commission.

When the legislation came into force in March of last year,

280,000 workers, or 13% of the workforce, benefited from this change.

This is having not only an impact on the lives of workers in Qatar but also

on their family members back home.

In the study that I mentioned that we conducted this year,

we found that those lowest wage earners are sending home 81% of their income

in remittances.

Because they have very low level of expenditure in Qatar,

their employer is providing food, accommodation, transportation, et cetera,

they are able to save a huge proportion of their income and send it home

to benefit family members back home.

Now, we see a high degree of compliance when it comes to the application

of the minimum wage, but one of our key priorities

is still wage protection.

There are still too many instances in which workers are not receiving

their wages on time.

There are better systems in order to detect and address this.

There is now an online complaints platform

which has really facilitated workers' access

to the grievance mechanisms.

There are now dedicated labour courts,

and also, there is a workers' fund, a government fund

that has been established to pay out workers

once they get a court ruling in their favour so that they don't have

to sue their employer in order to recover their wages.

This fund has paid out $320 million US dollars

in just a few years to workers, which also demonstrates the scale

of the problem when it comes to wage abuses.

-Max, many of these workers

that you mentioned work,

often, in very high temperatures.

Can you tell us, please, a bit

about what the joint ILO-Qatar Technical Cooperation Programme

has done

to address the whole issue of heat stress and working under heat stress?

-Obviously, occupational heat stress is one of the priorities given

the conditions in Qatar, especially during the summer.

In 2019, we commissioned research jointly from the ILO,

the Ministry of Labour, and the Supreme Committee

for the Delivery and Legacy of the World Cup.

We brought in a research team from the University of Thessaly in Greece

to conduct the groundbreaking research, the most comprehensive research

of its kind, looking at the impact of heat stress on workers' health,

and also to test various mitigation strategies,

including hydration strategies, work/rest ratios, clothing strategies,

et cetera.

From that research

which we conducted both on a World Cup stadium site,

but also a small farm, we're able to see what is the true impact

and what measures can be taken to reduce the risk of heat stress.

This informed new legislation that was adopted in 2021.

We believe that this is the most progressive legislation

that exists on occupational heat stress, and is very significant in that it extends

the prohibited working hours during the summer months.

Now from the 1st of June to the 15th of September,

from 10:00 AM to 3:30 PM,

all outdoor work is prohibited.

In addition, there is a threshold at which all work must stop regardless

of the time of day or the time of year.


all outdoor workers must undergo annual health screenings

to identify potential conditions which may increase their vulnerability

or their susceptibility to occupational heat strain.

Conditions like diabetes, hypertension, et cetera.

We've seen that this legislation is already having an effect.

We looked at the number of patients admitted to clinics

with heat-related disorders over the past four years before

the legislation was introduced and after the legislation was introduced.

We can see that this recent summer, for example, there were about 400 patients

that were admitted

to clinics with heat-related disorders.

This is a steep decline, about a 77% decline

from the number admitted in 2020.

It's really showing that this legislation has at least contributed

to safer work environments in Qatar.

I think that this legislation will also have regional and global implications.

When we look at prohibited working hours in Qatar, if you add them all up,

if you tally them all up,

there is about 588 working hours that are prohibited.

That's more than double

the prohibited hours in many other countries in the region.

We believe that the research and the legislation will also hold lessons

for other countries.

We saw this summer how many workers

across the Northern Hemisphere were affected

by rising temperatures.

We believe that this legislation and the lessons can be applied

to other contexts, certainly, beyond the region.

-Regarding other factors relating to occupational safety and health,

including serious workplace accidents,

there are vastly varying figures which have been published on the number

of work-related deaths amongst migrant workers in Qatar

in recent years.

Can you put all this into context for us?

Do we have an actual number of work-related fatalities in the country?

Can you shed light on why there are so many varying figures?

-Yes. I think there are three figures that are circulating,

but they're all looking at different populations.

I think the one that gets most traction

is certainly 6,500 deaths.

This comes from a Guardian article from 2021,

but it's really important

to go back to the original article in the context provided there.

That context is often not replicated when the number is cited

over and over again.

6,500 relates to the overall number of South Asian nationals

who've died in Qatar over a 10-year period.

It doesn't distinguish

between whether these are work-related deaths

or non-work-related deaths.

In fact, these deaths include people who are not economically active,

people under the age of 18, students, spouses, people over the age

of 60, et cetera.

Also, importantly, it doesn't really contextualize the size

of the South Asian population in Qatar.

The population in Qatar of South Asian nationals is huge,

about 50% to 60% of the overall population,

and incredibly diverse.

They are not all working in construction.

They're working in every sector of the economy across all income levels.

It's very misleading to attribute all of these deaths to work,

to construction, and certainly to the construction of World Cup sites.


the government was not able to respond

with an accurate figure on what is the actual number of work-related deaths

in a year or over 10 years.

We carried out work and published a report in November of last year which presented

how data is currently being collected

in the state of Qatar when it comes to occupational injuries.

We found that different ministries and different health institutions

are collecting data in different ways using different data points.

When you try and aggregate this or pull this together,

it's impossible to come up with one definitive figure.

We commissioned our own work working with the Medical Research Center

and other institutions,

and we found that, in 2020, just for one year,

there were 50 work-related deaths, 506 severe injuries,

and 37,000 mild and moderate injuries.

We can break this down by the cause of injury, the nationality of the worker,

their age, sector of work, gender, et cetera.

We're using this to design more effective prevention strategies.

We're using it to inform law and policy.

We're using it to train labour inspectors and also to raise awareness among workers

and employers.

At the same time, the report highlighted a number of gaps.

We're also looking at how we can strengthen data collection

within the government.

We're seeing progress now on a number of those recommendations,

including how data can be collected in a more harmonized way

and more systematic way,

but very importantly, one of the key recommendations is that,

still, there needs to be more investigations of deaths

and accidents that may in fact be work-related,

but are currently not being categorized as such.

The other data point relates to deaths on World Cup sites.

Now, this is not our data.

This comes from the Supreme Committee organizing

the World Cup.

They've found that there were three onsite deaths

in the construction of the World Cup stadiums

and 37 offsite deaths.

One thing that's important to contextualize here is that at the peak,

the number of workers building the World Cup Stadia

and related World Cup sites was 32,000 workers.

That's less than 2% of the overall workforce in Qatar.

The other thing to point out is that it's widely recognized

that the Supreme Committee has among the highest safety

and health standards in the country.

They've been working with the BWI, the Construction Workers Union since 2016.

BWI has been conducting inspections on-site

since then and publishing reports.

They've publicly stated how the conditions on these sites are comparable

to what they see in Europe and North America.

Another important piece of context to say that the number of people working directly

on the stadiums is a very small proportion of the overall workforce,

and their standards are generally higher than most.

-Thank you very much.

I'm going to move on to a different subject,

a slightly different subject now.

The ILO highlights that effective social dialogue

between governments, employers, and workers

and sound industrial relations are very powerful means

to promote social justice, inclusive economic growth,

and decent work for all.

Max, can you tell me--

How much of a voice do migrant workers in Qatar have in decision-making

that affects their rights and well-being?

Is the Joint Technical Cooperation programme addressing this issue

in any way?

-There are no independent trade unions

in Qatar. What was negotiated

with the International Trade Union Movement

and the government of Qatar, and the ILO

at the outset of this technical cooperation programme was

to start by building up workers' voice and social dialogue

at the enterprise level.

In 2019, new legislation was adopted that governs joint committees,

worker-management committees.

For the first time in the region, there

are elected migrant worker representatives

at the enterprise level.

This is voluntary, and we've been promoting joint committees

within companies

with the government who are actively promoting these now,

and with the support of the global union federations

who are present in Qatar.

So far, there are about 70 companies that have established

these worker-management committees with hundreds

of migrant worker representatives.

We've now established

what we call central labour management committees.

One exists at the sectoral level within the hospitality sector,

and one exists at the client level, so within Qatar Foundation.

They've mandated that all of their subcontractors

must establish joint committees.

We're in the process of gradually building up

more and more workers' voice, beginning at the enterprise level

but looking then at building it to the sectoral level and then

at the national level.

In addition to the joint committees, we work very closely with the ITUC

and the Global Union Federations.

They've been part of the process since the start, and on a biannual basis,

twice a year, we meet

the ILO, the Ministry of Labour, and the global unions

to discuss the progress that has been made over the past six months,

and also to set new priorities for the next six months.

Beyond that cooperation, at the strategic level,

the global unions and the ITUC also have a presence on the ground.

There are five staff of the global unions.

We call them community liaison officers.

Their job is to disseminate information

within their communities in the different sectors

about the reforms, but also to hear back from workers on where the gaps exist,

where the limitations and the gaps in implementation exists.

They're also building up networks and community leaders in domestic work,

in construction, in transportation, among security guards,

et cetera.

It's a process. It's an ongoing process, and gradually we're seeing results

in terms of more joint committees,

a sectoral committee in hospitality, and this is something

that we're now studying the possibility of perhaps making

these joint committees mandatory for companies of a certain size.

There's recognition from all sides that this is yielding benefits.

It's good for workers. It's good for employers,

especially now that we have labour mobility in the country.

Employers are looking at how they can retain their workers.

They need to listen more closely to the needs of workers.

Also, it's good for the government.

They see this as a way to address issues before they escalate.

-Max, I have a final question for you, which is what now?

The labour reforms you spoke of have largely taken place in the run-up

to the World Cup,

but is that the end of the line?

The current programme ends in December 2023.

Is there more work to be done on labour reform in Qatar?

-For sure.

We all recognize that there's a lot still to be done.

The ILO, the unions, the Government of Qatar,

we know that there are still gaps in implementation.

I've mentioned some of them when it comes to wage protection,

domestic workers' rights, the full implementation

of the kafala reforms but on other areas of work too.

That's why we will continue working well beyond the World Cup.

The technical cooperation programme runs until the end of 2023,

but the government has formally and publicly requested

that the ILO open up a longer-term presence in Qatar.

That will be discussed over the course of 2023.

-Max Tunon, Chief Technical Advisor and Head of the ILO Project Office

in Qatar.

Thank you very much indeed for speaking with us today.

If any of you want to find out more about the work that Max and his team

are doing in Qatar, the work of the ILO in the region,

or labour reform in general, you can find links on the webpage

of this podcast and on the ILO website.

Thank you all for joining, and I hope you'll join us again soon

for another edition of the ILO Future of Work podcast.