In Heated Panel Discussion: "The workers are not commodities. They should be treated with dignity"

The question and answer session at a panel discussion on the sponsorship laws in the GCC turned stormy yesterday as decision-makers from the region reacted sharply to what they perceived were veiled attempts by speakers to liken the system to slavery.

The battle lines were, in fact, drawn from the word go as panelists included officials from Qatar's National Human Rights Committee and the International Labor Organization (ILO), on the one hand, and regional bureaucrats, on the other.

NHRC's Mohamed Fuad and ILO's Dr Ibrahim Awad put forth their views boldly. The sponsorship system needs to be replaced with a proper contractual system, said Fuad in a paper titled 'Foreign workers between legislation and reality: The case of Qatar'.

Eyebrows were raised in the audience which mostly comprised bureaucrats and employers when he set the pitch of the discussion by raising objections to the use of phrases like 'labor importing and exporting countries' by various speakers at the symposium.

"The workers are not commodities. They should be treated with dignity," he said. 'Countries of origin' of workers and 'recipient countries', are the correct terms to use.

Since the sponsorship law restricts the mobility of a worker within the local job market, it violates his basic rights. A worker has the right to bring over his parents, wife and children. The system needs to be regulated so that this right of a worker is not infringed upon.

He then cited various international protocols which talk of these rights and said that according to a 1930 treaty of the ILO, sponsors in the GCC cannot threaten a foreign worker with cancellation of his residence permit (RP) and pack him off.

Default in salary payments is also a violation of the rights of a worker, said Fuad. He then talked of court cases filed by aggrieved workers against their erring employers, which go on in the labor tribunal for six months or so and during which time a worker has to remain without shelter and food.

There was a barrage of questions as the discussion ended with employers and bureaucrats reacting angrily. "The entire system will go haywire if the sponsorship system is done away with," said a member of the audience.

Another one said the GCC people are the most civilized and treat their workers very well. comments: Praise for NHRC's Mohamed Fuad for speaking out and telling the truth.