Qatar solo: labour reform leveraged from Gulf state’s isolation

Tweets bring little news worth cheering. One last Wednesday from Qatar was an exception, however. Abdullah bin Nasir bin Khalifa Al Thani, prime minister of the gulf kingdom, announced a reform of the country’s employment laws. He promised a “full commitment to the fundamental rights relating to labour” and a meaningful minimum wage.

The plight of the thousands of so-called ‘guest workers’ who have toiled, in abominable conditions, to construct Qatar’s World Cup 2022 infrastructure were on my mind. But so was the NUJ’s modest role bringing about this change.

The new laws won’t take effect until next year, but the Qatari’s commitment was enough for the International Labour Organisation to offer three cheers. The reforms will bring to an end the ‘kafala’, or sponsorship system. This gave the employers of many of the 2.3million non-Qatari’s working in the country extraordinary power over their workforce, including the ability to prevent them changing employer or leaving the country.

Credit for the NUJ’s role in this lies squarely on the shoulders of Jim Boumelha, one of our longest-serving National Executive Members and the former president of the International Federation of Journalists. Long ago, he recognised that Al Jazeera’s arrival in London presented a slender opportunity to help engineer change back in Qatar.

First journalists at Al Jazeera’s London studios sought recognition – not easily achieved, but it was a bridgehead. Next Boumelha put to the Gulf broadcaster that it should sign an ‘international framework agreement’ with the IFJ. In this, the Doha-headquartered broadcaster committed to media pluralism, human rights, journalistic professionalism as well as internationally accepted labour relations conventions.

Such agreements – between multinational companies and international trades unions – are a relatively new concept; fewer than 100 exist worldwide, despite there being more than 80,000 international corporations.  This is the first to be concluded with a global media employer.

The decisive moment came, however, when Qatar became the focus of Saudi Arabian anger. Qatar’s borders and ports were blockaded (and continue to be) because of the Kingdom’s alleged ‘support for terrorism’. Among Saudi’s outrageous demands was the immediate closure of Al Jazeera. Qatar needed allies.

Six weeks after the crisis began, Boumelha convened an extraordinary conference with more than 500 participants, in Doha, and under the auspices of The National Human Rights Council (of Qatar). 

Speakers came from the four corners of the globe – the NUJ’s acting general secretary Séamus Dooley and I among them, as well as Mick Hodgkin and Brian Ging from the NUJ chapel at Al Jazeera London. Perhaps the most significant, however, was Younes M’Jahed, the IFJ’s senior vice-president (and now president) who called for trades union rights in Qatar and said that, as well as the media, freedom of expression should be applied equally to poets, bloggers and civic society. That his contribution was in Arabic gave his contribution a particular resonance with our hosts.

Of course journalists were not the only ones putting pressure on the Qataris. The International Trades Union Congress, for example, has long made the country a focus and had previously submitted a complaint about its legal code to the ILO.

My hope now is that reform in Qatar ripples around the Gulf states. What a good thing it would be if this example creates pressure for other states to adopt labour laws owing more to the modern age than the middle ages. Such a clear case of effective international solidarity should also inspire trades unionists at home. However insular domestic politics might seem, focussing on issues beyond our shores can, on occasion, contribute to real change.

Photo: Al Jazeera’s Doha headquarters and studios © Tim Dawson