Qatar: protecting the human rights of migrant workers

The Middle East has suffered from many Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and labour issues, specifically around irresponsible recruitment of workers and forced labour.

At Sedex’s 2017 annual conference, Henriette McCool, Senior CSR Officer from Qatari Diar Vinci Construction, joined a panel discussion which explored ‘responsible recruitment’. QDVC is a Qatari shareholding company that is 51% Qatari and 49% French owned and specialises in construction. Henriette gave a fascinating and unique insight into labour issues in Qatar, specifically within the construction industry.

Qatar is a peninsular Arab country, that has built its wealth from natural gas, and is now the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. The wealth from this enables Qatar’s constant expansion, and thus the constant demand for more workers in the construction industry.

The Problem

The panel discussion opened by presenting the challenges that QDVC were facing in Qatar. The first point raised highlighted an issue that is perhaps not directly related to recruitment, but one that contributes to irresponsible labour practice. In Qatar, there is no minimum salary nor an equal pay for equal work principle. Not only does this negatively impact employees but it also highlights the environment that people must work in – one that heavily favours the employer. The panel described this using the example of the sponsorship system that Qatar and the surrounding nations have operated until very recently, called Kafala, which ties employees to their employer. This means that the employer decides if their workers can get a new job, or simply leave the country. [N.B. In December 2016, the Qatari Government abolished the Kafala system].

Another barrier highlighted by the panel to responsible recruitment in Qatar are the constraints on the labour pool that companies are allowed to recruit from. Under the Qatari government, companies can only obtain Block Visas from certain countries – therefore even if QDVC wanted to recruit from Europe, they legally would not be able to. Recruitment of workers through Block Visas is mainly from developing Asian countries, such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Therefore, a large proportion of the workers employed are often more vulnerable, for example, they do not speak either English or Arabic, meaning they do not have the working languages of their management and this can create issues in understanding and communicating tasks, and reading and understanding contracts, contributing to potential abuses. When this is combined with poor labour law enforcement, the employee issues are further entrenched.

 

Over the past five years, Qatar’s construction industry has faced its fair share of backlash. In 2010, Fifa announced that the 2022 World Cup would be held in Qatar. This decision was questioned from a human rights perspective, given Qatar’s reputation for poor labour rights. The first allegation of labour abuse came to light in 2013. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre reached out to one hundred companies in the construction sector, to ask questions on their migrant rights strategy. However, only twenty-two companies responded, which indicated an averseness to acknowledging and addressing human rights issues.1

According to Sedex experts, a year later, in 2014, Amnesty International carried out extensive research into migrant workers being used in the construction of the Fifa 2022 stadiums. They discovered that many migrants were paying extortionate recruitment fees, being misled about their contract terms and job type, all whilst living in terrible accommodation.2 Following this discovery, along with other cases of labour abuse coming to light, the Qatari government were forced to act. Following this, The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy created the Workers’ Welfare Standards report, which outlines all the requirements on issues including responsible recruitment, payment dates, holiday leave, and accommodation standards.

However, Amnesty International employees reported that in February 2016, the poor treatment of migrants still remained. Amnesty International spoke to 234 workers from the Khalifa Stadium and the Aspire Zone site, who had all begun work after these Welfare Standards had been implemented. All of these workers had had their passports confiscated, and more than half had experienced heavy delays in their payment.3 As 2022 draws closer, the risks these migrants are subject to increases, and the lack of law enforcement in this industry prevents regulations from making a real impact.

 

Assessing the Situation

After discussing the barriers to responsible recruitment that migrants faced in Qatar, Henriette McCool went on to discuss how QDVC are at the forefront of positive change. This gave an overview of their various innovative practices that they have employed to meet the company’s international commitment to human rights standards and responsible business, whilst operating within the law in Qatar.

To begin with, QDVC commits to employ migrant workers directly as much as possible, sending their own team of representatives to sourcing countries to personally conduct interviews, trade testing and selection of potential labourers. QDVC started to send their own recruiting personnel to monitor the service provided by the local recruitment agencies as early as 2009, almost since its inception.

Aware that employing migrant workers could lead to potential forced labour risks, and to check potential gaps between the rules issued and the real practices implemented during the process, QDVC reinforced its ethical recruitment plan in 2014, by launching  an extensive survey of the migrant workers, with questions covering the whole migrant cycle; from recruitment, to mobilisation, to working conditions, finance questions over remittances and savings, their satisfaction at work and their plans after Qatar. The results from the survey surprised the management at QDVC, as it showed that, shockingly, a vast majority of employees or subcontractors had paid fees, despite QDVC’s clear policy that no fees should be charged in their contracts with the recruitment agencies.

Henriette McCool openly discussed QDVC’s initial role in this issue; they had never thought of themselves as being guilty of labour issues, but after conducting their survey, they realised that whilst they weren’t complicit, they still had a due diligence duty to improve the process. Henriette McCool expressed how this was especially frustrating for QDVC because QDVC has always borne all the charges linked to the recruitment of migrant workers such as recruitment agency fees, plane tickets, visa costs and medical tests. QDVC realised that this was not enough to prevent the issue of improper fees or bribes higher up in the recruitment chain. Furthermore, their internal policies with their recruiters were very clear about workers not paying recruitment fees. However, QDVC is a perfect example of a company that identifies their challenges and CSR risks and then uses this information to improve their processes and governance and become more ethical.

QDVC used the data from the surveys to map out and understand the main problems that their workers faced in their recruitment journey. From this, they listed 13 areas of potential abuse: from relatives & neighbours, sub-agents, during the pre-selection phase and the selection phase (to be placed at the top of the list), during training (some had to pay for training before coming to Qatar), during the trade test and the medical tests (examples of doctors taking fake blood samples and then charging), for medical treatment, for local administration processes, for insurance, when receiving the offer letter from the employer, to receiving the visa, and finally to receiving the ticket.

The Solution

After understanding more about their labour issues, QDVC began to tackle these problems so that they could protect their employees and stay true to their commitment to be a responsible business. QDVC started their responsible recruitment journey by asking advice from NGOs, the Qatar Foundation, and experts in the industry. Following this, they reduced the number of recruitment agencies they used to only two; one in India and one in Bangladesh. However, they were aware these firms charged the employee fees or that agencies were sourcing workers by using middle-men or sub-agents who were taking money from the workers. So, they went further by meeting with these firms and reviewing the recruitment process together, step-by-step, so they could decide who would pay for what expenses and to reduce as much as possible the use of sub-agents. So, even though these agencies were potentially operating illegally at the start, they then began to operate in a more ethical manner.

QDVC understood that by becoming more ethical, there would be a cost involved, but this was something that they were very willing to do in order to become a fairer and better place to work. The company now pays the agencies the real cost of recruitment. Although QDVC has always covered fees relating to visa and administration, QDVC now conducts due diligence as early as possible in the recruitment process. Furthermore, they have also decided to raise the cost of the recruitment agencies services in order to allow the agencies to cover all their costs with a reasonable financial margin, with the objective being to cut the need for the agencies to take money from the workers.

QDVC implemented six key requirements for these recruitment agencies:

  1. Under no circumstances are workers to be charged recruitment or processing fees;
  2. QDVC prohibit the confiscation or retention of the workers’ passport or identity documents;
  3. The contractor is responsible for the payment of all recruitment or processing fees;
  4. All advertisement for the job must be clear and stipulate that the recruitment process is free;
  5. QDVC prohibits any payment or provision of any gift or hospitality from the recruitment agent to any employee or agent of the contractor; finally,
  6. All applicants must be treated fairly during the selection on the basis of their aptitude skills and capabilities.

These requirements are clearly stipulated in QDVC’s contract with their recruiters, which also states that all recruitment adverts will be in English and in the potential candidates’ official or native language.

QDVC continued to monitor their progress, and also made sure they offered their employees support and guidance by asking the workers:

  1. Whether they understood the terms and conditions
  2. Providing them with a hotline help number
  3. Providing induction and Workers’ Rights booklets (in their language of origin).

QDVC continue to monitor their processes once their workers have arrived in Qatar. Upon arrival, the company systematically organise interviews for all their newcomers regarding their recruitment journey and specifically ask whether they paid fees at any point to obtain the job. Induction sessions are organised for all newly recruited employees to give them a greater understanding of the company and environment they will be working in, alongside safety and skills training in the week they arrive. Employee surveys are also conducted after three months, and again, after six months of arrival, to ensure the company continues to monitor their worker’s work and personal development.

QDVC’s initial and follow-up action for ensuring the protection of their workers highlights a process that all businesses should strive to emulate. This commitment to improving their recruitment process has been recently cemented, as QDVC joined the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) Steering Committee of the Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment on June 19th, 2017.

Henriette McCool concluded with the success QDVC had from their project on responsible recruitment:

We thought that we could never make it, given that in Qatar almost all migrant workers pay fees. But actually, for the campaign we did in 2015, we recruited 1,400 workers and out of them only 2 paid fees, and it was an insignificant amount which was straight away reimbursed. So, it actually worked”.

To find out more about how you can protect your business from the aspects of Forced Labour, please click here.

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