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UN Fires Shot Across Qatar's Bow

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The United Nations' senior official responsible for migrants, in a shot across Qatar's bow as officials predict imminent far-reaching labor reforms, has called on the Gulf state to abolish its controversial kafala or labor sponsorship system and enshrine its lofty promises in law.

The timing of the publication of UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants François Crepeau's report on Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup, suggests that the Gulf state's trade union, human rights and UN critics are unlikely to accept anything less than the abolition of the kafala system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.

Qatar, which has engaged with critics who demand that it be deprived of its right to host the tournament if it fails to adhere to international labor standards, has suggested that it will shortly announce radical reform of its controversial labor system. The reforms stop short of abolishing kafala but would transfer sponsorship from employers to the government, allow workers to change jobs after serving proper notice, and ease the issuing of exit permits.

Criticism of Qatari labor conditions has emerged as the foremost threat to Qatar's to efforts to use the World Cup to build soft power amid suggestions that an investigation by world soccer body FIFA into allegations of wrongdoing in Qatar's successful World Cup bid is unlikely to produce seriously incriminating evidence.

Qatar sees sports in general and soccer in particular as a key defense and security tool that will earn it the soft power it needs to compensate for its lack of hard power. With a citizenry of only 250,000 Qatar realized with the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that it would not be able to defend itself no matter how many weapons it acquired or how many foreigners it drafted into its armed forces. Kuwait at the time was able to marshal the international community to come to its aid and expel Iraqi forces from the Gulf state.

Mr. Crepeau called in his 22-page report for abolition of the kafala system; adherence to international human rights and labor standards; integration of binding commitments to respect the rights of migrants in all commercial contracts; a robust system for oversight of suppliers and subcontractors; and ensuring that migrant workers are not charged fees for their recruitment and are granted exit permits "unless there is a justified reason not to do so."

He further urged the home countries of migrant workers to regulate recruitment agencies in order to guarantee ethical recruitment in compliance with international human rights and labor standards, ensure that recruitment agencies do not charge migrants fees and that workers are prepared for work in Qatar, and that inter-government agreements safeguard workers' rights.

"The recruitment process for migrants needs to be further formalized in order to prevent exploitation and legislation must be enforced in order to ensure their rights are respected. The kafala (sponsorship) system, which links a work permit to a single employer, is a source of abuse and exploitation of migrants and should be abolished," Mr. Crepeau said.

At the same time, the UN official recognized that Qatar's demography -- foreign workers constitute the majority of the population in a country in which Qatari nationals account for only 12 percent -- means that reform of the labor system is likely to entail social and political change that could have a ripple effect across the Gulf.

Qatar's 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy issued in February a 50-page document it says will be part of any World Cup-related contract that enshrines much of what Mr. Crepeau is demanding. The document like principles adopted by Qatar Foundation are however only binding for contracts issued by the two organizations. The government has yet to make those principles nationally binding by enshrining them in law.

Some Qatari officials and analysts suggest that could happen as part of the Gulf state's planned overhaul of the kafala system.

The government in advance of the overhaul has been seeking to convince the country's business community which has been reluctant to endorse reform.

It has also announced a series of May Day-related activities, including a "walkathon" in the Industrial Area where many migrant workers are housed in which officials and workers would participate "to create awareness about work place safety" and a conference on the protection of workers' rights in Qatar under the patronage of Prime Minister and Interior Minister H E Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani. At the same time, Qatar is using soccer to forge hitherto non-existent social links between Qataris and the country's migrant labor and expatriate majority.

The events and initiatives, designed to show that Qatar is serious about labor and social reform, are however unlikely to impress the Gulf state's critics who want to see change legally enshrined and properly monitored and enforced.

Qatari media reports suggested that the business community's resistance to reform was focused on the possible easing or abolition of exit permits that employees need to obtain from their employers before leaving the country.

"The private sector strongly resists any changes to the system, particularly exit permit rules, arguing that their interests need to be protected by the state as 85 percent of the country's population comprises foreigners, and most businesses are run by them," The Peninsula reported.

Businessmen fear that expatriates who often run their operations and have access to company funds would be tempted to skip the country with those funds if the exit permit system were abolished. The businessmen note that they would have little legal recourse given that Qatar has few extradition treaties with other countries. Some businessmen suggested they may be willing to endorse reform if the government were willing to shoulder the risk.

"I understand the pressures. But we should not be the ones to run the risk for what is ultimately a government responsibility," one businessman said.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.