“Qatar has set a new standard for the Gulf states, and this must be followed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where millions of migrant workers are trapped in modern slavery.”
These are not the words of a politician, but of Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). When was the last time that Qatar was held up as a shining example in the Middle East?
This tiny nation has seen a lot of negative press over the past 18 months. The international spotlight has been fixated on it as it prepares for the World Cup in 2022. Then, in early June, Saudi Arabia and an array of other Arab countries abruptly cut ties with the country.
You may think, so what?
But this matters, because Qatar is a close military and economic ally of the UK. We are the country’s single largest investment destination, and recent press reports showed Qatari command and control in Doha were central to UK forces using drone strikes in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, which were critical to preventing the spread of Islamist terrorism in the UK.
The impact of the blockade affects UK business in Qatar, and potentially investment back here at home too.
With so much construction currently being undertaken in the country – a lot of it with British company involvement – there are an estimated 1.8m migrant workers. Over the past couple of years, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has been investigating labour laws in Qatar.
As a result of this action and international pressure, there has been a swathe of labour law improvements, including visa free travel, limits to daily working hours, weekly rest days, annual leave, domestic worker rights, changes to the obnoxious Kafala system, fines on businesses for violation, the establishment of employee grievance panels, and changes to make it easier for employees to return to their home country and to switch jobs.
Last week, the ILO decided to not continue with its complaint, but instead to work with the government to ensure these changes are enforced and delivered across the country.
In light of this blockade by its neighbours and sanctions on Qatar on security grounds, there is a concern that these acts will have a damaging effect on the strong advances in labour rights which the UK has been keen to see.
We must recognise that these legal changes need to be accompanied by cultural changes and enforcement. Historians of labour laws know this all too well. More can be done – and UK businesses have a part to play.
British companies working in Qatar and with Qataris here in the UK have the power to model change. For example, they can ensure the social responsibility that we have here towards our workers is reflected for their workforce in Qatar.
We should focus on how Qatar is in the process of making changes in the cultural fabric of the society that has existed for centuries. Nothing happens overnight – we’ve had to wait until very recently for women to be permitted to drive in Saudi. Pressure works, even if painfully slowly.
We must pressure all Gulf countries to copy Qatar’s improvements and compete to outdo each one another in terms of workers’ protections. There has to be a collaborative approach to labour rights internationally, to ensure continued social development alongside economic progress. We can find and use lessons from the UK on labour improvements, speed, and quality.
It will take time, but let’s use our economic influence to make sure that pressure works.