India’s interests and capabilities extend well beyond the subcontinent. This essay is part of a series that explores the geopolitical dimensions, economic ties, transnational networks, and other aspects of India's links with the Middle East (West Asia) -- a region that plays a vital role in India’s economy and its future. More ...


The estimated 650,000-700,000 Indian migrant workers in Qatar constitute the latter’s largest expatriate community and nearly double the number of native Qataris. Their positive contribution to the progress and development of their host country is well recognized. In recent years, however, Qatar’s handling of the rights and protections of migrant workers, a large portion of whom are unskilled Indian laborers employed in the construction sector in preparation for hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup has received a great deal of international media scrutiny and criticism.[1] In February 2014, the Indian government confirmed the deaths of 450 Indians in Qatar, at a rate of 20 per month, over the preceding two years.[2] This article discusses the strides that Qatar has made in addressing these concerns and the steps India could undertake to spur further progress in ensuring that its migrant workers’ rights are protected.

Qatari Immigration Policy Reforms

The influx of temporary migrant labor into Qatar began in the late 1960s. Even though “Qatarization”[3] has sought to replace foreigners with trained and educated Qatari citizens, it has only minimally impacted the overall workforce in Qatar because of the exponential expansion of labor needs throughout the region.[4] With increasing international and regional ambitions, rising state revenues have led to labor intensive development plans for the country, which have resulted in a steady dependence on inexpensive foreign labor. In addition, broader strategic development plans for knowledge creation require a range of skilled and highly skilled foreign workers to populate jobs in higher education, scientific institutions, and the Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) sector.

Against the backdrop of criticism of its handling of migrant workers engaged in FIFA[5] related construction projects, Qatar has introduced a number of measures aimed at accommodating migrants. The launch in April 2013 of The Qatar Foundation Mandatory Standards for Worker Welfare for Contractors and Sub-Contractors introduced comprehensive ethical and legal standards for labor recruitment, accommodation, transport, health and safety, and contracts.[6] Soon thereafter, the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee adopted the Workers Charter. Since then, Qatar has built on these initiatives.

Regulation of legal migrants

In December 2016, the Qatari government enacted a new labor law that paved way for the establishment of state-run grievance committees to which workers may appeal for redress. The law also provides that workers who have completed contracts be allowed to change jobs freely and imposed fines of up to 25,000 riyals on businesses that confiscate employees’ passports or deny them the opportunity to change jobs following the expiration of their contracts[7]

Ten months later, Qatar approved a draft bill to set up a support fund for the migrants, titled the “The Workers Support and Issuance Fund” under the auspices of the Cabinet. Additionally, preliminary discussions were held regarding the possible establishment of a minimum wage and implementation of legal protection measures[8] Qatar also introduced a domestic employment law, which limited the work hours for domestic workers to 10 hours per day and extends mandatory benefits to them such as one day off per week, an annual leave of three weeks, and payment at the end of each month.[9]

At present, the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs, is handling the labor-related affairs and compliance. However with the increasing pressure of migrant management and labor welfare, there is a need for the government to establish a National Employment Bureau, similar to Bahrain’s Labor Market Regulatory Authority, in order to coordinate all recruitment policies and procedures.

Regularization programs for illegal migrants

A major concern for Qatar remains the absconding of workers and the illegality related to employment. Visa trading mainly by small companies, is a major source of irregularity in Qatar, which remains less discussed.[11] Many national or non national sponsors in Qatar use the kafala system as an easy means of generating income by providing multiple visas to workers and recruitment agencies, who charge the migrant workers (mainly unskilled or low skilled) an annual rent for residency renewal. This creates a corporate cover where the employer is unable to check whether the migrant have been trafficked or not.[12] Irregular migrants[13] also face the dilemma of terminating their contracts as they may not be able to prove the employer’s violation of the contract, may lack legal access or the financial means to be repatriated even if they do not want to extend their term of employment in the country.[14]

The sponsor or employer controls the entry, transfer and exit of all employees as the work visa contains the name of the sponsor as well as the job classification. This further leads to legal restraints for the migrant due to the nature of his/her status as being irregular. Thus, obtaining an exit visa from the sponsor and the requirements to leave the country remains a problematical issue which needs to be dealt with.

Conditions for skill-based citizenship

The Qatari government has recently sought to reform citizenship laws, notably through the addition of provisions regarding naturalization.[15] Qatar hosts a large number of skilled and highly skilled migrants who populate a range of critical employment sectors in the country, many of whom remain within the state well beyond the two-year limit, and whom the state has an active interest in retaining.[16] In 2017, Qatar drafted a new residency law that gives permanent residency status to certain non-citizens, including migrants who have contributed socially and economically to the welfare of Qatar; and children of Qatari women married to non-Qatari men.[17] Qatar’s new law is the first in the region to allow non-citizens with certain benefits of a complete citizenship such as education and free housing.[18] This is also beneficial for intermarriages between Gulf nationals where spousal transfer of citizenship remains an issue during any crisis situation.

In the case of skilled migrants, the system facilitates easy entry to the job market and also job changes, but the lack of inclusion, power imbalance between sponsor and migrant and long- term residence or citizenship, provides few incentives for the highly skilled migrants to fully contribute to the Gulf economies.[19]

Signing of ILO technical cooperation agreement and ratification of human rights treaties

In October 2017, after coming under fire from rights groups, Qatar concluded a technical cooperation accord with the International Labor Organization (ILO) in which it agreed to set a minimum wage and abolish the kafala system. Seven months later, Qatar ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which oblige signatories to ensure that workers enjoy the right to freely choose their employment, fair wages, and safe working conditions.[20]

Migrant Labor Issues in Indo-Qatar Relations

Over the years, India and Qatar have sought to find common ground on labor-related issues. In 1985, they concluded a bilateral agreement on the Regulation of Employment of Indian Manpower in Qatar.[21] In 2007, they signed an additional protocol outlining several measures to protect the interests of expatriate domestic workers (including drivers and maids), and to check any kind of exploitation or malpractices by recruitment agencies. The agreement provided for payment of full wages and other entitlements as per the contract in case of premature repatriation of a worker without his fault and also provided measures to ensure the welfare of the workers.[22]

During Prime Minister Narendra Modis’ two-day visit to Qatar in June 2016, reportedly discussed the issue of worker abuse in his meeting with Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani and addressed a gathering of Indian laborers in Doha, assuring them that he would raise their concerns with Qatari authorities. Modi’s visit culminated in the signing of seven accords aimed at boosting bilateral economic ties, including an MoU on Cooperation in Skill Development and Recognition of Qualification.[23]

Nevertheless, Amnesty International and other rights groups have continued to report numerous cases and various forms of workers’ rights abuses. With the media spotlight on Qatar’s preparations to host the 2022 World Cup, such reports have become more common. The issue of non-payment of wages and other hardships faced by migrant workers has even vaulted to the front pages of some of India’s largest mass-circulation newspapers, such as the Hindustan Times and The Hindu.[24]

The diplomatic crisis that erupted between Qatar and Saudi Arabia in June 2017 presented an additional challenge in managing issues related to Indian migrant labor. The crisis sparked fears among the Indian expatriate workforce in Qatar that they might lose wages, jobs, or perhaps even their work permits.[25] The Indian government’s initial response to the crisis came in the form of remarks by Minister of External Affairs (MEA) Sushma Swaraj, who stated: “There is no challenge arising out of this for us. This is an internal matter of GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). Our only concern is about Indians there. We are trying to find out if any Indians are stuck there...If we found anyone in need, we will get them back to India.”[26] Thereafter, MEA’s efforts focused on facilitating travel for Indians living in the country. MEA issued an official statement declaring that Indians in the region were safe, and secure, and thus there was no need for emergency evacuation. Subsequently, an “Indian-Qatar Express Service” was launched for the shipment of food products and other essentials from India.[27]

Despite these steps, some observers nonetheless accused Indian officials as having succumbed to “policy paralysis” during the crisis.[28] India’s response to the safety of its migrants during the initial stages of the crisis mirrored the “short-termism” with which India has continued to approach issues related to the status and treatment of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) not just in Qatar but in the wider region.[29] Meanwhile, since the diplomatic crisis erupted, progress in Qatar in improving migrant workers status and employment terms appears to have been lagging.[30]

A Way Forward

Despite Qatar’s effort to reform its labor immigration policy, there remains scope for further progress. First, the Qatari authorities should protect workers by ensuring ethical recruitment and reimbursement of payments through official means guided by a regulatory body that would streamline the efforts of the Ministry. There is also a need to carefully  to  Monitor the kafala system, which despite the new amendments, companies continue to exploit at the expense of workers.

Second, Qatar’s international human rights obligations have opened up opportunities for it to engage in international labor regulation and the regularization of irregular or illegal immigrants. However, migrant domestic workers are not covered under the Qatar Labor Law. Consequently they are unable to seek protection from human trafficking and absconding from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Their inclusion is therefore imperative.

Finally, as Qatar moves towards a post-oil economy, the rationale for restricting citizenship to non-Qataris may need to be re-examined. The promise of citizenship might attract skilled migrants who could then contribute to the country’s tax base and help support its aging population.[31]

However, Qatar cannot be reasonably be expected to “solve” all migrant-related problems overnight or on its own. Steady progress will require a sustained political commitment at the highest level and joint efforts with labor-sending governments to institute regularization programs, look into illegal recruitment, impose penalties on defaulters, and provide opportunities for irregular workers to seek assistance against their employers and human trafficking.

Here, India bears responsibility for, and possesses more leverage than it has thus far chosen to deploy, in advancing migrant workers’ rights in Qatar. To date, India’s bilateral engagement with Qatar has largely focused on economic and security issues. The plight of Indian workers can only be alleviated if India steps in with a long-term comprehensive plan to engage Qatar in efforts not just to institute new, more progressive labor and immigration policies but also to implement them.

 

[1] Owen Gibson, “Qatar government admits almost 1000 fatalities among migrants,” The Guardian, May 14, 2014.
 

[2] Courtney Trenwith, “Indian gov’t confirms 450 workers died in Qatar in 2 yrs,” Arabian Business, February 14, 2014, https://www.arabianbusiness.com/indian-gov-t-confirms-450-workers-died-….
 

[3] As part of a long-term strategy for efficiency and harmony in human resource management in the region, Qatar has implemented nationalization policies to redress these socio-demographic imbalances within the labor markets. These nationalization or localization processes are known as Qatarization in Qatar.
 

[4] Andrew Gardner, Silvia Pessoa and Laura Harkness “Labour Migrants and Access to Justice in Contemporary Qatar,” Report, November 2014, www.lse.ac.uk/middleEastCentre/publications/Reports/LabourMigrantsQatar….
 

[5] Fédération Internationale de Football Association.
 

[6] “Qatar Foundation Mandatory Standards for Worker Welfare for Contractors and Sub-Contractors,” April 2013, https://www.qf.org.qa/app/media/2379.
 

[7] “Qatar introduces changes to labour law,” Al Jazeera, December 14, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/12/qatar-introduces-labour-law-16121…
 

[8] “Qatar approves new bill to protect foreign workforce,” Al Jazeera, October 26, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/10/qatar-approves-bill-protect-forei….
 

[9] “Qatar passes law to protect employment rights of domestic workers,” The Guardian, August 23, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/aug/23/qatar-passes….
 

[10] Ray Jureidini, “Migrant Labor Recruitment to Qatar,” Report for Qatar Foundation Migrant Worker Welfare Initiative, 2014, http://www.qscience.com/userimages/ContentEditor/1404811243939/Migrant_….
 

[11] Ray Jureidini, “Irregular Migration in Qatar: The Role of Legislation, Policies, and Practices,” in Philippe Fargues and Nasra M. Shah (eds.), Skilful Survivals: Irregular Migration to the Gulf, Gulf Labour Markets and Migration (Gulf Research Center: Cambridge, 2017), http://gulfmigration.eu/media/pubs/book/BookChapters/GLMM%20-%20IM%20Vo….
 

[12] Jureidini, “Migrant Labor Recruitment to Qatar.”
 

[13] In Qatar, irregular migrants include foreign nationals without residence status, who entered on tourist visas and are employed in unregistered jobs, those who have absconded from their jobs or those whose companies have gone bankrupt and cannot provide work visas.
 

[14] Gardner et al., “Labour Migrants and Access to Justice in Contemporary Qatar.”
 

[15] The 2005 act and its provisions along with Article 41 of the Qatari Constitution are the most relevant legislation acts used to determine nationality and citizenship rights in Qatar. It also addresses nationality and citizenship issues for women in Qatar where provisions include the granting of citizenship to foreign women who marry Qatari men, the safeguarding of the nationality rights of a naturalized Qatari female citizen, even if she divorces her native Qatari spouse, and that a Qatari native woman does not lose her citizenship status upon marrying a non-Qatari man.
 

[16] “Qatar introduces changes to labour law,” Al Jazeera.
 

[17] Jocelyn Sage Mitchell, “Why did Qatar just change its residency laws?” The Washington Post, August 9, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/08/09/why-did-q….
 

[18] Ibid.
 

[19] Martin Hvidt, “Highly Skilled Migrants. How and how much do they contribute to the economic development of the Arab Gulf countries?” New Analysis, December 2016, https://www.sdu.dk/-/media/files/om_sdu/.../c.../hvidt+article+(dec+16)….
 

[20] May Romanos, “Qatar finally joins two key human rights treaties-but what does it really mean for migrant workers?” Amnesty International, June 13, 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/06/qatar-finally-joins-two-…; and Haniya Javad, “In Qatar, World Cup workers toil on tourist visas,” Asia Times, September 5, 2018, http://www.atimes.com/article/in-qatar-world-cup-workers-toil-on-touris….
 

[21] International Labor Organization (ILO), “Additional Protocol to the Agreement between the Republic of India and the State of Qatar on the Regulation of the Employment of Indian Manpower Signed on 11 April 1985,”  http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_protect/---protrav/---mig….
 

[22] “India, Qatar ink pact to protect rights of expatriate workers,” The Economic Times, November 20, 2007.
 

[23] Government of India, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), “List of MOUs/Agreements signed during the visit of Prime Minister to Qatar,” June 5, 2016, http://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/26869.
 

[24] Jayanth Jacob, “600 Indians in Qatar for 2022 Football World Cup infrastructure stranded with no pay,” Hindustan Times, July 23, 2018, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/600-indians-in-qatar-for-2022…; and “ 550 Indians stranded in Qatar-Construction company has not paid salary, assurances not honoured”, The Hindu, May 14, 2018, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/550-indians-stranded-in-qatar/ar….   
 

[25] Sabrina Toppa, “The embargo of Qatar is hurting foreign workers more than Qatari citizens,” The Washington Post, July 20, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/07/20/the-embarg….
 

[26] Quoted in Sanjeev Miglani, “No Challenge to India from Gulf Nations Severing Ties with Qatar, says Swaraj,” The Wire, June 5, 2017, https://thewire.in/diplomacy/no-challenge-to-india-by-some-gulf-nations….  
 

[27] “ Amid Qatar Crisis, Gulf countries promise that Indian workers will remain safe in the region,” India Times, June 10, 2017, https://www.indiatimes.com/news/amid-qatar-crisis-gulf-countries-promis….
 

[28] Toppa, “The embargo of Qatar is hurting foreign workers more than Qatari citizens.”
 

[29] Shruti Sonal, Qatar crisis: Why India failed to move beyond short-term concerns, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), April 24, 2018, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/indias-response-to-qatar-crisis-….
 

[30] “Qatar: Migrant workers unpaid for months of work by company linked to World Cup host city,” Amnesty International, September 28, 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/09/qatar-migrant-workers-un….
 

[31] Ryan Harrison, “GCC Citizenship Debate: A Place To Call Home,” Gulf Business, January 5, 2014http://gulfbusiness.com/gcc-citizenship-debate-a-place-to-call-home/.