Qatar’ Labour Law Reforms – A Leap Forward?

Widely known as the site for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has come under the limelight in recent months due to increasing reports of exploitation and abuse of its 2 million migrant workers. Following global criticism and the recent legal challenge brought by the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation in Swiss courts against FIFA, Qatar has been driven to change its legal landscape for the better.

In August of this year, Qatar enacted for the first time a new law protecting the rights of domestic workers. Among other protections, the law guarantees a maximum 10-hour workday, weekly rest days, annual leave entitlements and end-of-service payments. Another noteworthy development is that employers are since required to provide written contract outlining the job, working conditions and salary details. Despite remaining silent as to enforcement mechanisms, the law was celebrated by organisations such as Human Rights Watch.

Earlier this month, the government of Qatar and the International Labour Organization agreed to develop a three-year programme of technical cooperation with a view to end the kafala sponsorship system which ties workers to their employers, preventing them from changing jobs or leaving the country without prior written authorisation. The agreement also encompasses the improvement of labour inspection and occupation safety and health systems, as well as encouraging the organisation and representation of workers. In addition, Qatar has not only pledged to improve the Wage Protection System – ensuring workers are paid on time and arrears are settled systematically – but announced its intention to introduce a minimum wage. These efforts have been complemented by Qatar’s signature of 36 yet undisclosed worker-protection bilateral agreements with countries on which it relies for the provision of foreign workforce, and its approval of a draft bill to set up a support fund for migrant workers.

The timely Qatari concessions were made shortly before the ILO was due to decide whether to launch an official commission of inquiry to investigate the abuse of migrant workers. Whilst it is hoped that the agreement reached by the UN and Qatar will spur another wave of positive changes in Qatari law, whether or not the ILO’s recent decision to drop their case against Qatar on the basis of promises alone was a sensible conclusion remains to be seen.


Spinning the wheel: combating modern slavery in the garment industry

Worldwide sub-contracting is the hallmark of 21st century business, and the fashion industry has been no exception to this trend – having paid in human costs what it gained in monetary benefits. The 2013 Rana Plaza collapse, having claimed over 1,100 lives and injured 2,500, remains to this day the most dramatic and opportune illustration of the pervasiveness of modern slavery in the garment industry.

Boasting of 60-75 million workers worldwide, international textile supply chains are, whether to the knowledge or obliviousness of international businesses, riddled with forced and child labour. As a result, many clothes sold by high-street brands are the product of modern slavery; but the complexity of the supply chain – with fashion brands having on average over 200 suppliers – renders difficult the identification and investigation of instances of slave labour. Because the textile industry is built on low-skill jobs, it relies on highly vulnerable low-wage labour force who have little bargaining power and work in extreme conditions in unsafe factories. While international firms are interested in cutting costs and pressure sub-contractors to reduce their own (i.e. workers’ wages), they sacrifice demands on workers’ rights. In turn, governments are reluctant to set working conditions that would drive production costs upwards by fear of losing markets – a particularly egregious outcome for countries such as Bangladesh, where the apparel industry accounts for 83% of total exports.

The global fashion industry is particularly cruel to children and women. Children are often considered to be well-suited to low-skilled labour and even preferred to adult workers for tasks such as cotton-picking, as a result of the belief that their small fingers will not damage the crop. The attractiveness of employing children, however, lies not only in technical advantages but also practical benefits, as children are unlikely to bargain for better working conditions or voice any sort of complaint. Gender discrimination is equally pervasive, with a high preference for female workers due to the persistence of cultural stereotypes on female passivity and submission, that in turn lead to sexual harassment and abuse.

Textile global supply chains have been previously described as ‘opaque’, with customers having poor or no knowledge of the workers, working conditions and specific location behind every garment in their closet. Following the introduction of the Transparency Pledge by a collation of labour and human rights groups, there is growing momentum supporting transparency in the supply chain, with the UK’s Modern Slavery legalisation which requires companies to publish a modern slavery compliance statement, but recent figures suggest that only half of companies required to file compliance statements under the Act have done so. But local or regional initiatives have been slowly forthcoming, such as Tamil Nadu’s recent implementation of a new law preventing trainee works in the garment industry from being trapped in apprenticeships longer than one year, a scheme which previously justified salaries below minimum wage and lack of job security and benefits coverage. Although practical steps such as drafting supply registers and raising awareness among garment workers as to their rights might prove effective in identifying instances of modern slavery, little can be done to actually protect victims without tackling the root cause of slave labour: poverty and lack of better opportunities.

Qatar’s Construction Industry: Sites of Modern Slavery

 Qatar's #Labour reforms promises

In addition to workers in the fishing industry and agriculture, construction workers are among the most highly vulnerable groups to modern slavery. In recent years, the issue has come under global spotlight after reports of the plight of hundreds of migrant workers at Qatar’s 2022 World Cup sites (Khalifa Stadium and Aspire Zone) working under extremely harsh conditions and for no pay.

Qatar’s award of the 2022 World Cup contract has resulted in an unprecedented demand in low-skilled workforce – and with foreign workers accounting for 90% of Qatar’s workforce, in the flourishment of recruitment agencies abroad. The offer of promising salaries and the possibility to send remittances home easily persuade thousands of Indian and Nepalese workers to pay substantial commissions to the agencies, only to later find themselves exploited and underpaid. Among the many abuses suffered by workers, deceptive recruitment, inhumane working and living conditions and irregular or non-existing payment of wages are those most commonly disclosed. The gravity of the labour law violations resulted in the death of 1,800 migrant workers in the three years preceding 2014, leading the ITUC to predict the death of further 7,000 workers before the start of the World Cup.

Despite having introduced laws preventing employers from withholding their employees’ ID and travel documents, a loophole remains by which employers may legally keep their employees’ passports with the latter’s written consent, which may well be obtained under duress. In addition, the kafala sponsorship system in place prevents workers from changing jobs when in Qatar or leave the country without their employer’s consent. Artificial changes to the law have been made, but employees are still required to obtain their employer’s permission to look for alternative work or leave. Lastly, employees are deterred from reporting any violations to the relevant authorities for fear of reprisals.

The issue is compounded by several local shortcomings, such as the lack of corporate due diligence to identify these abuses, the lack of monitoring of small sub-contractors by the relevant supervisory authority and abuse of self-reporting processes. But as a consequence of the international reputation of the World Cup, the responsibility to prevent labour exploitation not only lies with domestic institutions, but with FIFA itself. However, a recent Amnesty International report on the issue has found FIFA’s reaction and investigations to be precarious at best, leading a Dutch union to sue FIFA in Zurich in order to compel the organization to adopt ‘minimum labour standards’ for migrant workers – a claim that was subsequently rejected.

In order to end these violations, responsible actors at all levels must be held accountable – from recruitment agencies in third countries profiting from misrepresenting terms of employment and domestic authorities at construction sites failing to identify and prosecute labour abuses, to the international organisation under whose aegis the abuses occur.

Modern Slavery in the Fishing industry

The fishing industry is one where modern slavery has remained pervasive despite increasing public awareness and advocacy. Thailand, whose seafood industry is worth $7.3bn a year, has been the object of scathing criticism due to widespread evidence confirming the presence of human trafficking, forced labour and human rights abuses in fishing boats across the country.

Ninety percent of the Thai fishing workforce is made up by migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia, often trafficked across the border and lured to fishing vessels under false promises of regulated work. They are sold by brokers for as little as £450, committing themselves to harsh and often inhumane work conditions for an indefinite length of time, trapped in the vicious circle of trafficking and re-trafficking. While at sea, severe instances of abuse and even murder go unreported and unpunished, an issue compounded by complex questions of country jurisdiction and poor licensing and registration of many vessels, whose entire activity and crew is swept under the radar.

Unsurprisingly, the extent of the modern slavery issue in the fishing sector in Thailand has been the subject of international backlash. In April 2015, the EU issued a “yellow card”, threatening a ban on seafood imports unless Thailand improved its record of illegal fishing and labour abuse. Standing to lose up to 1bn in revenue per year, the Thai government was quick to adopt an illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing enforcement act in line with EU regulations, labour laws preventing minors from working on boats and in seafood processing factories and a command centre to combat illegal fishing (CCCIF) which has now signed several memoranda of understanding with key companies. These efforts were rewarded by an upgrade in the 2016 US Trafficking in Persons Report from Tier 3 (the lowest ranking) to Tier 2, and a jump of 21 places in Verisk Maplecroft’s 2017 Modern Slavery Index.

Despite these improvements, in March of this year the International Labour Organisation held in a formal yet highly unusual ruling that Thailand was still failing to protect migrant workers, who were unpaid and abused. The ruling, informed by interviews of Thai migrant workers, showed that domestic authorities are far from achieving compliance with international labour standards. However, local efforts to stamp out modern slavery in an industry 90% of which is destined for exports are unlikely to ever be sufficient. The US, UK and EU, prime buyers of Thai seafood, have a key role in using access to their markets as leverage to achieve the elimination of human trafficking and modern slavery – a strategy which has clearly worked in the past.




The 2017 Modern Slavery Index

The famous adage of ‘knowledge is power’ is particularly relevant to the fight against modern slavery – and most crucially, to its effectiveness. Identifying the extent of modern slavery, the challenges in addressing it and its weaknesses is a yearly endeavor undertaken by consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft. Its recently published 2017 Modern Slavery Index has underlined two key issues: the positive correlation between migrant arrivals and higher modern slavery risks in Europe, and the persistent yet unaddressed consequences of unregulated outsourcing to the developing world.

With legislation criminalising modern slavery blossoming in the UK, France, and the Netherlands, Europe seemed poised to do well. But Europe fared worse than hoped, with nearly three quarters of EU countries witnessing a risk in modern slavery risks. Romania’s modern slavery situation is deemed as deteriorating more than in any country in the world, leading it to drop 56 places in the ranking to 66th highest risk. Italy was found to be the second worst-faring EU country, with modern slavery instances expected to rise in line with the steady drip of migrant sea arrivals. Turkey suffered the 2nd worst drop in the index owing to similar reasons, proving that modern slavery is not independent from contingent factors, and will not be solved unless the root causes are addressed.

The most disappointing results were those that were expected the least. Germany and the UK, countries often regarded as epitomising the rule of law, dropped from the ‘low risk’ to the ‘medium risk’ category, due to gaps in the former’s labour inspectorate, and increase of trafficking crimes in the latter’s territory. Such a negative development is particularly surprising in light of the UK’s recent Modern Slavery Act, which fuelled hopes for positive change.

But the report also revealed more of the same. It unsurprisingly confirmed fears that Asian manufacturing hubs, such as Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines remain in the ‘extreme’ or ‘high risk’ categories. India and Thailand, whose development and enforcement of anti-slavery and anti-trafficking laws has resulted in drastically improved rankings in the MSI, provide a glimmer of hope for the South East Asian region. However, this progress is unlikely to extend to the entirety of the region without international comprehensive legislation making modern slavery a crime both domestically and abroad.

A possible solution is for foreign jurisdictions to take the first steps in developing and honing modern slavery legislation. Effective cross border collaboration and intelligence sharing is also key to eradicating modern slavery worldwide.


Child Marriage: A Vicious Circle of Poverty, Violence and Exclusion

Every 2 seconds, a girl is married against her will – and every year 15 million girls are married before the age of 18. Child marriage not only signifies a forced and premature end to childhood, but permanently interrupts the young brides’ education and professional development. In keeping with the traditional gender roles underpinning child marriage, their role becomes confined to child-bearing and rearing, performing all household chores and working in unforgiving conditions to support the household income.

Child marriage is fundamentally fuelled by gender inequality, poverty, and cultural traditions. In many cultures, marrying a girl to an older man is not only accepted but celebrated, as it is understood that the child will be looked after and provided for during the years to come when her family can no longer do so. Thus, a child is very rarely married without her family’s consent, if not persistent encouragement. However, far from improving a girl’s future, child marriage traps its victims in a situation of dependence and abuse, perpetuating the circle of poverty and exclusion.

The numerous hardships faced by young brides often mask the complex family dynamics behind the scenes. In addition to the inherent violence attaching to sexual relations with underage non-consenting minors and the ensuing sexual abuse, child brides are often the object of frequent domestic violence. Several surveys have found that child brides are more likely to be victims of physical and sexual violence than their adult counterparts, and are more likely to find it acceptable in some circumstances. Having been entrusted to the abuser by their own family at a very young age, their agency and bargaining power is limited, resulting in them refraining from denouncing any instances of violence or abuse. This is compounded by the authorities’ tacit encouragement of violent behaviour against women under the guise of cultural acceptance, leaving victims entirely unprotected against their perpetrators. In turn, child victims of abuse live in fear of aggression and reprisals, developing mental health troubles early on in their marriages. It is for these reasons that child marriage is rightly considered a violation of human rights.

Despite public outcry and worldwide condemnation of the practice, future prospects are bleak. If the practice continues at the current rate, the number of child brides will grow to as many as 950 million by 2030. No significant strides towards ending the practice can be made without multi-sector initiatives at all levels of society. Because communities actively practising child marriage are often rural, disenfranchised and live in extreme poverty, economic empowerment is key to tackle directly the causes behind child marriage. Similarly, laws against child marriage must be reinforced, as they are of little effect if they are riddled with loopholes such as parental consent or exceptions on customary or religious grounds.  Finally, public and third sector action must be focused on empowerment through education, not only of potential victims, but also of potential abusers and family members aiding the practice.

Strict Yet Ineffective Laws – FGM in the United Kingdom

Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as cutting and female circumcision, is a procedure which involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Recent NHS data has revealed that English doctors addressed over 5,300 new cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2016 alone.

There is little doubt as to the pernicious character of FGM. Deeply rooted in gender inequality and gender discrimination, the practice targets only women and girls, saddling them with life-long sequels that are as wide-ranging as they are severe. These include but are not limited to recurring infections, pain during and beyond sexual intercourse, infertility, childbirth complications and even death. However, the most devastating trait of FGM is that it is practised on children – the same NHS data revealed that 95% of the victims recorded in 2016/17 had undergone FGM when under 18 years old, and 44% of victims were subjected to the practice when they were between 5 and 9 years old.

Despite the outlawing of FGM in the UK in 1985 and the introduction of the 2003 Female Genital Mutilation Act, penalising anyone taking a child out of the UK to be cut elsewhere with 14 years of prison, not a single successful FGM prosecution has taken place to date. In condemning this ‘scandalous’ figure, the Commons Home Affairs Committee expressed fears of the lack of convictions deterring victims to come forward.

This shocking figure not only questions the effectiveness of police efforts in tackling the practice, but also its attitudes towards FGM. Earlier this year, the West Midlands Police received backlash after stating that parents practising FGM on their children should be educated instead of prosecuted. The issue is compounded by a lack of FGM awareness in schools, and the fear of victims to expose their families to the risk of being prosecuted, and suffer retaliation. Equally, cultural barriers and community secrecy have proved an obstacle for third parties to come forward.

However, recent strides made by the government may be turning the tide. Since 2015, it became mandatory for all hospital trusts, mental health trusts and GP practices to collect and submit FGM data to the NHS FGM database – thus strengthening figures on the procedure, allowing for greater transparency. In addition, the Children’s minister announced earlier this month that the National FGM Centre, previously in financial difficulties, was set to partake in £30 million of funding from the Department for Education’s innovation fund. It is hoped that these efforts will generate momentum in the fight and prosecution of FGM, and raise awareness of the issue in communities and the broader population.


Supply chain transparency – a burden for businesses, a role for customers

Supply chains, otherwise known as the network of different actors involved in the production, manufacture, distribution and retail sale of a final product, have increasingly come under the spotlight as a key site of modern slavery. Globalisation, outsourcing and cross-border division of labour have increased competitiveness, and incentivise businesses to drive down costs and maximise profits; relegating human rights concerns to the background, and increasing the likelihood of modern slavery. This is particularly the case for products as popular as tea, coffee, coal, sugar and tobacco, which have been found to be among the top eight items with an increased risk of slavery. Intended to illuminate the hidden reality of enslaved workers behind the everyday household products displayed in local supermarkets, the supply chain transparency has been hailed as one of the many strategies to counter modern slavery, and to hold companies profiting from it accountable.

Supply chain transparency is the backbone of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015, which requires every commercial organisation supplying goods or services to submit a slavery and trafficking statement for each financial year, wherein it must confirm the steps it has taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in any of its supply chains or in any part of its business, including due diligence measures and staff training. The MSA has created momentum on the issue, and inspired Australia to consider the introduction of a Modern Slavery Act with similar supply chain provisions.

Though broadly hailed as a milestone, some commentators have referred to the MSA as a missed opportunity. Indeed, the reporting requirement only applies to companies having a total turnover of £36 million. By requiring statements to be made easily accessible to the public, the MSA puts the onus on the consumer to make informed investment decisions, and motivates the everyday buyer to choose against modern slavery. The age of social media is also the age of information; and when it is so widely available, responsibility not only rests with the company, but the customer.


Child Labour – A Multi-Faceted Issue

On 12 June, lawyers, NGO workers, activists and members of the public worldwide came together to pledge their commitment to end a practice which, 15 years and countless efforts after the creation of the World Day Against Child Labour, remains widespread.

The International Labour Organization’s most recent estimate of children trapped in child labour is of 168 million, of which 85 million are in hazardous work. However, this widely cited figure is soon to reach its 5 year anniversary in 2018, prompting the question of whether the world has come any closer to eradicate child labour since it learned of its pervasiveness.

The causes behind child labour are as diverse as its manifestations. They include poverty, lack of
education, lack of laws prohibiting its practice, and even cultural perceptions. Gender also plays an important part in determining whether a child will be made to work, as girls are generally made to work at an earlier age than boys, and pushed towards domestic work in accordance with traditional gender roles.

Because child labour is often the result of legislative vacuums or poor enforcement of existing laws, it is intuitively – and mistakenly – confined to the local or national ambit. However, child labour can be increasingly attributed to global trends and the international community’s shortcomings in adequately addressing them. Just this week, the UN reported a record 65.6 million people had been forcibly displaced in 2016 alone, of which children make up at least 11.25 million. The vicious circle of displacement sees thousands of families fleeing poverty or destitution, only to meet them later down the line. In such circumstances, children are often made to work in order to contribute to family expenses. Equally, the ongoing refugee crisis has shed light on the precarious situation affecting thousands of children in refugee camps in diverse European locations, many of whom turn to sex work to survive, whether of their own accord or coerced by criminal networks. Unaccompanied minors, alone and unsupervised, face a similar – if not considerably worse – fate.

There is no ‘hard and fast’ solution to the eradication of child labour. However, public awareness
campaigns, supply chain transparency, education, and comprehensive and appropriately enforceable laws can go a long way. Significant strides are being made with regard to the latter. India, among the countries reputed to have the highest child labour levels, most recently ratified the two ILO Conventions on children, namely the 1973 Minimum Age Convention and the 1999 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. Although there is a long road to elimination of child labour, concrete steps in that direction should be celebrated, and taken as a model to follow.