Qatar Still in Denial about Exploitation of Workers After Tier 3 Rating Continues into 2008

Mohammed Fouad, legal consultant to Qatar's national human rights committee, is juggling two phones in a new building between a Qatar Airways office and a branch of Villeroy and Boch, an upmarket household goods boutique.

Mr Fouad has an unenviable task. This month the US State Department kept Qatar and three fellow members of the Gulf Co-operation Council - Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait - on Tier 3, the poorest possible rating in its Trafficking in Persons report.

Bahrain made it to the Tier 2 watch list and the United Arab Emirates is Tier 2. The document claims that Qatar fails international reporting standards and describes the gas-rich emirate as a destination for the purposes of involuntary servitude and, to a lesser extent, sexual exploitation.

Mr Fouad counters that Qatar has recently redrafted its labour laws and his committee is filing a complaint.

"[The report] has just been cut and pasted from previous years. There are international standards for these reports. The committee will be seeking to enforce those. This report will be changed," says Mr Fouad.

Such a change could lift Qatar from the Tier 3 rating, which, in theory, leaves the emirate open to international sanctions. Among other recommendations, the report advises that sponsorship laws, a complex series of rules that the report says "condone slave-like conditions", should be abolished or significantly amended.

Only 10 days after the trafficking report was released, Qatar's consultative council returned the revised sponsorship legislation to an Internal and External Affairs Committee "for further study".

Diplomats say that slow movement on long-promised changes to these laws on entry, exit, residence and sponsorship are one of the reasons why Qatar remains on the lowest ranking.

The deferral of the revised sponsorship laws has also fuelled cynicism among expatriates. "The sponsorship laws drive good people away from Qatar," says a website forum contributor. "It's a lose-lose situation."

A western expatriate says: "We may not feel like slaves. But, even if there is a death or illness in the family, we have to wait for permission to leave the country."

The consultative council did, however, make some progress with a second law improving conditions for "domestic workers", who mainly come from Indonesia, Asia and North Africa.

The law, in draft form, is awaiting final approval by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar's emir. It stipulates that domestic workers should have one day off work each week; that time should be given for resting, eating and sleeping; that salaries should be paid at least monthly; that workers have an annual holiday; that a gratuity should be paid at the end of each working year. This is viewed by Qatar as a measure to combat possible trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

The Qatari authorities and those of other GCC states have to contend with powerful vested interests in the form of businessmen who profit from the existing sponsorship and labour laws. While progressive elements in the government have been calling for change, others have been pressing for a tightening of the very rules that the government is trying to liberalise.

Mr Fouad acknowledges that "complications" can be caused by employers making counter-complaints - such as allegations of theft - when maids or labourers complain about conditions, abuse or pay. ""People can lie for one reason or another. We have to listen to both sides. The report only listened to one," Mr Fouad says.



How can they ever deny it?

How can they ever deny the fact that workers are being exploited? It is plainly obvious!