Qatar’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs recently released figures which suggested that worker remittances totalled a record USD 12 billion in 2014. No breakup was given by the Ministry but foreign exchange market sources told BQ magazine money transfers made by Nepali workers may have been between USD 1 and 2 billion out a total of USD 12 billion last year.
According to Nepal embassy sources, there are an estimated 400,000 Nepalis working in Qatar and an equal number may be based in Malaysia – the two countries with the largest number of Nepali migrant workers.
Their numbers have lately been increasing in South Korea as well.
A Nepali minister recently told international media in Kathmandu that overseas Nepalis remitted nearly USD 4 billion home annually which was roughly a fifth of Nepal’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Reacting to an international rights’ group report that suggested migrant workers needed to be treated better in Qatar, the labour ministry said that migrant workers earned much less in their home countries than here.
A little earlier, local media cited a Chicago University study which suggested that GCC countries, Qatar in particular, contributed greatly to bridging the economic inequality gaps in poorer societies of South Asia and helped raise living standards as millions of their people worked in the oil-rich countries and remitted tens of billions of dollars home annually.
Analysts say that while it is true that some companies in Qatar may not be treating their workers well, this cannot be generalised for the entire private sector or the country. It can’t be true that all migrant workers are mistreated in Qatar, said one analyst asking not to be identified.
Qatar has recently been bearing the brunt of international criticism over the treatment of migrant workers, especially Nepali workers engaged in the FIFA 2022-related development projects. But some analysts say the criticisms smack of bias because no rights’ group or trade union has so far highlighted the issue of migrant workers and their families’ economic conditions getting better due to the remittances they send home.
Data released by the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics show that in the past seven years, from 2008 until 2014, foreign workers transferred from Qatar a little over a staggering USD 60 billion home.
It would be safe to argue that much of this money must have gone to families in poorer societies struggling with cash. Exact data are difficult to have but assuming that even if a tenth of this sum, which would work out to over USD 6 billion, went to Nepal, that would be a huge sum for the small country whose GDP in 2013 was estimated at close to USD 20 billion, the analyst argued.
He said perhaps the only problem in the way of the rights of migrant workers was the sponsorship law, which includes exit permit rules.
Positive changes to the provisions of the law are expected by the year-end after which expatriate workers should be able to change jobs at the end of their contractual period, while exit rules would likely be monitored by the Ministry of Interior.
Another major step being taken towards workers’ welfare is that hopefully by August, all companies in the country will be paying salaries of all their workers through banking channels. The Oxford Business Group’s Report 2015 on Qatar rightly notes: “Incomes earned in Qatar represent a critical channel for wealth redistribution, although human rights and labour law issues have posed a challenge, both for workers and the state. With the 2022 FIFA World Cup throwing these issues into the spotlight, Qatar has become the de facto face of human rights reform in the GCC region.”
Just a few weeks before the devastating earthquake struck Nepal, Qatar’s Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, H.E Dr. Abdullah bin Saleh Mubarak Al Khulaifi, was in Kathmandu with a delegation of senior officials from his Ministry.
There, he revealed Qatar needed a million more foreign workers in the run-up to the FIFA 2022 event, aside from telling Nepal how Qatari laws made it illegal for foreign workers to pay manpower agencies to land jobs in the country. He said Qatari laws clearly specified that companies must even pay for the air travel of workers.
Agreeing with the minister, Ragheb El-Awar, human resource manager at a construction firm in Qatar, tells BQ magazine more workers are indeed expected to move to Qatar in the next few years as the 2022 World Cup projects are tendered. “The focus in this period, however, is on infrastructure projects, which rely more on machines than men,” says El-Awar.
Next year, things might change. Recruitment is more difficult now and finding skilled workers might not be easy. This is why some companies find solutions in locally-hired staff but no one can manage without hiring workers from overseas, he adds. “In the past two years recruitment has gone up significantly high, and it will increase further in the coming few years as we get closer to the World Cup,” he adds.
Commenting on the matter from a business perspective, Nishad Abdulla, operations director of the Gulf Star Group of companies says foreign workers should be regarded as a segment of consumers.
“When you look at nearly one million people coming in for a particular purpose, they are also going to add value to the country. As consumers, they will be generating more revenues for the country as they will go out to make purchases and use the facilities in the market on a daily basis.”
It goes without saying that some businesses address the needs of these workers and they are growing significantly, such as some strategically located hypermarket chains and exchange houses.
Abdulla highlights some of the challenges facing companies when it comes to recruitment saying visa restrictions affect workflow as companies have to get workers from countries other than the ones they target, which compromises skill level, project costs and deadlines. “Another challenge is represented in acts of fraud in countries like Nepal for example.
Such acts are committed by agents and brokers who identify workers. They give false hopes and insights to these workers, but now there is a Qatari embassy in Nepal to prevent such acts from occurring.
“A lot of the workers who come here tell us that they paid large amounts of money and we can’t help it. We do not take any money from them. We take care of the visa and buy the tickets and we bring them on board. If they perform properly, we continue.
If they do not perform, we give them warnings. We look at the first three months to monitor them and to make a decision. If things do not go right, we send them back and we notify the agents about what went wrong so that they can sort it out.”
Generally speaking, according to Abdulla, and based on the trends currently in the market and the upcoming projects, the labour market is flourishing. With more demand for people to come in, the government is defining and enforcing new rules. As more and more companies adapt and comply, it reflects positively on everyone.
Abdulla says: “Maintaining relationships with new people is always the best option. In some cases, these workers struggle and suffer as they are denied their basic needs. Eventually, it might lead to a strike and you have no option but to bring in new people who still need to be acquainted to the country and the project. This holds projects back and might impact relationships between some of these nations.”
Describing the new Qatar Embassy in Nepal as a step in the right direction, Abdulla says that as a company they do what they have to do in terms of recruitment. Since they do not have physical presence in Nepal, they do Skype interviews with every single person explaining everything about the project, work environment and package.
He says: “We also ensure that we get everything in writing to make sure we are covered and that everything we agreed on is clear. We monitor our facilities to make sure the labour department’s guidelines are followed.”
Abdullah goes on to say Labour Department officials were pleased by the recruitment system they have in place. “Currently,” he adds, “Government officials are doing checks at workers’ accommodations and offices. They are checking payrolls of every single worker. We have everything documented and our records show the exact date of salary payments.”
All major projects demand all contractors and suppliers provide documentations. They have set up teams to inspect all sub-contractors’ and suppliers’ camps. They have a checklist of all the conditions that need to be fulfilled.
They will only accept a contractor or supplier if they comply with their conditions. This is very important for local companies that are willing to participate in these large projects. All of these processes will definitely improve the quality of life of the workers. Moreover, new facilities and cities are being built that promise to make things better.
Qatar’s Labour City
Qatar plans to build seven cities to house 258,000 migrant labourers who are building major infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, officials announced in May. Ministers said all seven should be built by the end of 2016 and the largest, Labour city – for 70,000 people and with a 24,000-seat cricket stadium – will start housing workers soon.
In total, 258,000 workers – about 25 percent of Qatar’s migrant labourer population – will be housed, officials said.
Dr. Al-Khulaifi told media at a press conference Qatar has effectively doubled its number of housing inspectors to 300, and that would increase to 400 soon.
“We have labour accommodation standards and we are monitoring them and penalising those who violate (the rules),” he said. “Our business community knows we are taking it very seriously.”
The cities, a mixture of government and private sector accommodation, will be built across Qatar, from the fringes of the capital Doha to one in the north. Most will house about 28,000 workers. While no final figure for how much the project costs is available, Labour city, with 55 buildings including a mall, clinic and the second largest mosque in Qatar, cost USD 825 mn.
Growing workforce pressure
Labour demographics in Qatar have been changing since 2011 when FIFA 2022-related development projects began to be announced after Qatar won the bid to host the coveted event early in December of 2010.
By September 2014, according to the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics, Qatar’s labour force stood at 1.65 million, of which a massive 1.55 million were expatriate workers. The majority of workers were employed in the construction sector.
In 2013, the construction industry accounted for nearly 37 percent of the country’s entire workforce, or about 550,000 workers, most of who were from Asia – Nepal, India and the Philippines. By 2014-end, Qatar’s population had already soared to 2.23 million, with over 190,000 new arrivals in the year, putting immense pressure on basic services.
The shortage of workers’ accommodation, schools for expatriate children and housing for limited-income expatriate families are currently the most talked about issues in business circles as well as in expatriate communities. The population has been increasing and if a million more foreign workers descend here over the next few years, the situation may become more challenging, say analysts.
Will Qatari businesses take the lead in improving labour recruitment?
As Qatar’s infrastructure development worth billions of dollars continues at a rapid pace, with falling oil prices having little or no effect on its growth, local businesses face massive challenges. Infrastructure projects worth USD 200 billion are underway including a new port, the metro system in Doha and construction of stadiums in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
On the one hand, businesses get a generous piece of the pie by participating in the development. On the other, there is increasing pressure on them to run a clean ship. The country, currently in the eye of a storm, cannot afford to turn a blind eye to exploitative labour practices.
As of May 2015 Qatar’s population stood at 2,374,860; about 200,000 more than the previous year. Most of the new residents are lower income migrant workers being brought in to help realise the big plans.
The need for lower income migrant workers is only set to grow over the next five to six years. One of the major issues facing companies then is not only to provide decent working and living conditions, but also to recruit the workers in an ethical manner that does not engender them in any way, including landing them in debt bondage.
Labour recruitment doesn’t have a set pattern, or one cohesive route from origin to destination. At present, it is the cheapest (for employer) possible method that is embraced. This obviously develops into a host of problems.
According to the ILO, which has launched a Fair Recruitment Initiative, 44 percent of those in forced labour globally, are migrants. It also states, migrant workers who borrow money from third parties (to pay recruitment fees and other migration-related expenses) face an increased risk of being in forced labour.
Several reports, including that under taken by Qatar Foundationˡ, reveal that workers coming to Qatar pay hefty recruitment fees, and get into debt bondage to do so. As William Gois, of Migrant Forum in Asia, summarises, “People have to buy their right to work and that is just not alright.”
Even though Qatar’s regulations clearly state that charging recruitment fees from workers is illegal, and that the costs have to be borne by the employers, in practice, this is not enforced.
There is no oversight on the procurement chain – including in countries of origin – to ensure they are not exploited.
Corporations in Qatar have an increased responsibility then to ensure that workers they recruit are not vulnerable to trafficking or forced labour. With billions of riyals worth of construction projects underway, the various participants in this economic bounty, could set an example in fair and ethical recruitment. Some sending countries are now exploring ways to mitigate fraudulent recruitment and trafficking.
India moves to electronic recruitment
India, where the majority of workers hail from, has recently introduced the eMigrate² system that makes it mandatory for foreign employers (FE) to register on the site. The actual recruitment process itself could be done through private agencies or directly, but the request for recruitment has to be registered online.
As per the order, the foreign employer should ‘raise demand and seek a permit to recruit directly or select recruiting agents online only after getting registered with the Indian Mission through the eMigrate system.
Such FEs shall be required to declare the terms and conditions of employment for each category of job, at the time of applying for the mean registration. The declared terms and conditions of employment will act as a specimen contract and will form the part of employment contract at the time of actual recruitment.
The first two phases require employers seeking over 150 employees to register online. From 1 July, those with over 50 employees have to follow this procedure, and from 1 August, those requiring more than 20 employees will be added to this system. This new system to a great degree directly addresses problems of contract substitution. But it is not the Government to Government (G2G) recruitment that many activists advocate.
Government to Government recruitment
Dr. Ray Jureidini is the author of Migrant Labour Recruitment to Qatar, a report for the Qatar Foundation Migrant Worker Welfare Initiativeˡ.
In his opinion, G2G should be used in conjunction with private recruitment. “Because there is less evidence of corruption with government recruitment organisations in the origin countries.
This can be coupled with more transparency in electronic recruitment and employment measures.”
A G2G would also require bilateral agreements (BLAs). The move by India makes it mandatory regardless of BLAs, and covers all citizens who require an emigration check (usually unskilled workers without minimum education levels).
Qatar recently signed an agreement with Bangladesh for 50,000 workers visas. Though it is a bilateral agreement, it is not clear if this covers government oversight in recruitment. Bangladesh already has a G2G with Malaysia, but it is one fraught with problems as neither countries have invested in oversight, says Gois. This means there are job orders, and workers available, but since recruitment is not through government, it is not moved quickly enough.
According to Gois, right now there is no G2G that serves as a good model. “Even with South Korea, considered a leader, there are certain constraints from their side. Workers, for instance, cannot transfer jobs. The good bit about South Korea is that the government has invested in it. There is some oversight on workers coming into the country.”
He says the GCC is very much still market driven. When it comes to recruitment of cheap labour, it is a free market. “While it puts regulations, there is no implementation. But we have to recognise that we have come some way in not playing the blame game,” referring to the Asian Parliamentary caucus that has been in talks with countries of employment to ensure safe migration.
So even if businesses in Qatar wish to follow more streamlined and ethical processes, there just isn’t enough incentive or enough support to do so. That is not to say it cannot be done. It will be done at a cost. As Gois points out, “To do it right there is a cost. If enough people do it right, it will be rationalised. Businesses should realise that in the long term to drive down costs and up productivity, you will have one skilled instead of 10 unskilled workers.”
His organisation is also behind RecruitmentReform.org, a global civil society initiative to aggregate current news, research, campaigns, and policy initiatives on international labour migration and recruitment.
Employee engagement at all levels
That point cannot be driven home strongly enough. There doesn’t seem to be enough of a will to mechanise or optimise the simplest of jobs. Yes, there are a few eerily lifelike robots at certain roadworks holding a red flag.
More often than not, a poorly paid individual is doing that job, when his time and skills could be put to better use. Similarly, when cost is the driving factor in recruitment, then you don’t get the best talent; only the one that asks for the least, and has probably paid the most as recruitment fees.
Dr. Jureidini says businesses should understand that by investing in better recruitment practices, “they will benefit from a more robust workforce that is not trapped in debt and forced to work to pay off those debts.
Ethical recruitment means workers will work not because they have to, but because they want to. Yes, to earn as much as they can for their families but without the burden of debt and if they are treated well, all studies show that they will be more productive.” In corporate-speak, ‘Employee Engagement’.
This kind of exploitative recruitment doesn’t really benefit businesses either. Even when a business, usually construction firms, opts for outsourcing to manpower firms to supply labour, it is not always cheaper, Dr. Jureidini says.
“It just lifts the burden of direct hire during uncertain periods. But it also means that employing companies do not concern themselves with how they were recruited or how they were treated.” He calls it a ‘Corporate Veil’.
World over corporates are being held accountable for their procurement line, and are looking deeper into violation of human rights. Even if it is to manage a PR situation. A few do so on their own volition. That is the challenge ahead for Qatari businesses. Yes, the laws are to be amended, and the Kafala system is pending reform, but businesses could take a stance.
“Companies can circumvent this (despite the law and until the reforms promised are enacted) by offering workers automatic exit visas; recruit exclusively with ethical recruitment agencies that do not take any money from workers; ensure they are paid properly and on time; and that they have enough food to eat and are provided with decent accommodation in accordance with the QF and Q22 worker welfare standards.”