INTERVIEW – As athletes and politicians in Europe call for a boycott of the next FIFA World Cup, Qatari government spokesman Sheikh Thamer bin Hamad al-Thani is keen to defend his country’s reform progress work.
From November 21 to December 18, 2022, Qatar will host the twenty-second FIFA World Cup. The oil emirate has undertaken gigantic construction works, including no less than eight stadiums, a metro, sixteen floating hotels, etc. Almost all of the workforce on the sites comes from Asia. European sportsmen and politicians have publicly expressed concern about the working conditions on these sites. Meeting in congress on March 14, the Norwegian football federation postponed its decision on a possible boycott of the World Cup to an extraordinary Congress on June 20. The government of Qatar believes that he is being put on a sham trial. Its current spokesperson, Sheikh Thamer bin Hamad al-Thani, deputy director of the Government Communications Office, answers the Figaro’s questions.
Le Figaro. – In a survey published on February 23, 2021, the British daily The Guardian reported that more than 6,500 immigrant workers died working on stadiums and infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. How did Qatar get there?
Sheikh Thamer Bin Hamad al-Thani. – These figures are misleading because the article in Guardian included all of the deaths over the past ten years of residents of Qatar from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal. However, contrary to what the Guardian, these people did not all work on construction sites. This is a very remote hypothesis from reality. Expats from these countries also include students, the elderly and workers employed in offices, retail businesses, schools and hospitals.
Qatar has more than 1.4 million expatriates from these countries. Only 20% of them are employed as workers in the construction sector, which accounts for less than 10% of all deaths between 2014 and 2019.
Every death is a tragedy. Qatar has always accepted factual criticism. But, taken out of context, the misleading figures of Guardian cause a sensation. Taking into account the size of the population, the numbers are within a normal range.
Over the past decade, there has been a steady decline in the death rate in Qatar, due to our health programs and improved safety at work. There are strict penalties, including jail time, for business leaders who violate safety standards.
In Europe, athletes (like Norwegian footballers) or politicians (like Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France) call for a boycott …
We believe that these boycott calls are in large part the result of misinformed reporting, which has overshadowed our progress. It is good to note that in recent weeks, many football associations, NGOs and fan groups have understood that a boycott is not a constructive outcome.
Qatar fully supports footballers and football associations who use their platform to promote human rights. Their criticism of the 2022 World Cup is misplaced, however. Qatar has made tangible progress in labor reforms and has shown its commitment to continue the process in cooperation with its international partners.
Over the past decade, Qatar has done more than any other country in the region in improving the living and working conditions of immigrant workers
Thamer Bin Hamad al-Thani
To date, all the reforms carried out have been carried out in collaboration with our international partners.
The ILO, as well as unions and NGOs, all recognized that positive changes were taking place in Qatar. Although we recognize that this process is not yet complete, the labor reform agenda is long term and the World Cup is a real catalyst to completely overhaul our labor system. Over the past decade, Qatar has done more than any other country in the region in improving the living and working conditions of immigrant workers.
What recent reforms have been made to better protect immigrant workers?
The most significant development was the dismantling of the system “ Kafala ”, Under which workers were contractually bound to their employer. The worker no longer needs an exit permit to leave the country, and he can change jobs as he wishes.
In the last quarter of 2020, the new system contributed to more than 78,000 successful job changes.
On April 1, 2021, we instituted the minimum wage in Qatar. It is the first of its kind in the Middle East. It will provide additional financial security for every worker in Qatar and their families abroad.
On the health and safety front, we have raised the standards. Outdoor work is prohibited during the hottest hours of the day during the summer and new technologies have been introduced to keep workers cool when they are on site. Modern housing has been built across the country for workers, and the skills of labor inspectors have been extended on the eve of working and accommodation conditions.
In the last quarter of 2020, more than 7,000 sentences were handed down, ranging from minor offenses to more serious offenses that resulted in heavy fines and jail terms. Changing corporate behavior will not happen overnight, but we are sending a clear message: illegal activity will not be tolerated.
Now that strong labor legislation is now in place, we know that its enforcement is essential. Much remains to be done and Qatar is constantly reviewing its laws to improve the conditions and rights of workers while ensuring that the labor market is strengthened.
The World Cup is a catalyst for much of this progress on labor rights in Qatar
Thamer Bin Hamad al-Thani
You mentioned international cooperation in this social field …
We have extended our agreement with the United Nations labor body, the International Labor Organization in Geneva, which in 2018 opened an office in Qatar to support our labor reform program.
These are valuable partnerships to help us bring about lasting reforms. The World Cup is a catalyst for much of this progress on labor rights in Qatar.
NGOs report that some workers have been forced into debt with recruiters in their home country to pay prohibitive recruitment fees …
Qatar is fighting against this exploitation. It has opened visa issuing centers in the countries of origin of many workers. These centers allow workers to sign their contracts and undergo medical examinations before their departure, without having to repeat the procedure upon arrival in Qatar. All recruitment costs and related costs are the responsibility of the employer.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, our government made funds available to businesses to continue paying the wages and rents of immigrant workers.
We also have a system to ensure that salaries are paid in full and on time. This system requires Qatari companies to open bank accounts for their employees and transfer wages to them electronically. Companies that violate this system face a one-year prison sentence and a fine of 10,000 riyals (2,300 euros), which is multiplied for each violation.
Workers can also file a complaint against their employer if they are not paid. These complaints are examined by the Ministry of Labor and, if an amicable solution cannot be found, the worker can take the matter to a special disputes tribunal, which will seek to resolve the issue within three weeks.