Price of Qatari remittances


Helps the economy, at least

“Qatar will be giving 100,000 visas to skilled Pakistanis. Another success bagged by Prime Minister Sharif. A very productive visit MA [Masha’Allah],” said a post on PML-N’s official social media pages on Facebook and Twitter. Another post referred to the deal as a gift from the prime minister’s Qatar visit.

Things, however, may not be as they appear at first sight.

First, Qatar has been awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup for which it needs to build hotels, stadiums and infrastructure. This may not sound such a big deal but Qatar has a population of about two million, less than 10 per cent of which are Qatari citizens. The rest, about 1.8 million, are migrant workers, most of them from India which has 545,000 followed by Nepal with 400,000, Filipinos with 185,000 and Bangladeshis with about 137,000 workers in the country. According to an estimate by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Qatar needs to import one million new workers into the country in order to build the infrastructure required to hold the World Cup. The 100,000 worker visas represent a mere 10 per cent of what the oil and gas rich state needs.

Most of the workers will, in fact, be brought in from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and other countries in the region. Qatar has actually told Pakistan exactly what it requires from the workers, and the government has launched a programme to train workers before it can send them to Qatar. Provincial Minister for Labour and Human Resource Raja Ashfaq Sarwar said in July last year that the government had formed two committees to identify the professional skills that the Qatar and Dubai governments required — the Dubai government is also in the middle of a large-scale construction spree after it won the right to hold Expo 2020. The Emir of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum promised in 2013 after his country won the bid for the Expo that the edition would be the best ever and that the country would “astonish the world”. The preparations to stage the six-month long world fair are expected to generate 277,000 new jobs in the UAE.

Labour Minister Sarwar said: “A special cell has also been established in the office of the labour secretary for the provision of a 200,000 skilled workforce from Pakistan.”

So, the gift that the PML-N government has referred to may actually be the one that his government is providing to Qatar in the form of 100,000 trained workers to build their much needed infrastructure in time.

But while this may have been mildly deceptive by Sharif’s spin doctors, things get very dark very quickly from this point.

The Qatari government has been criticised for its appalling treatment of workers in the country. A Washington Post blog claimed in its report published on May 27 last year that at least 1,200 migrant workers had died in the country since 2010. The blog estimated that as more workers pour in to build the country’s infrastructure, 4,000 workers will die before the country stages the first football match of the world cup. The Qatari government disputed the number but a report from the government itself had said that 964 workers hailing from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh had died in 2012 and 2013.

While not all workers deaths are related to world cup construction alone and the Post noted that “there could be hundreds of deaths even without a World Cup”, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) said that the holding of the world cup would significantly increase the workers’ death toll. It said that most of the 4,000 worker deaths will be on World Cup related construction projects.

“FIFA needs to send a very strong and clear message to Qatar that it will not allow the World Cup to be delivered on the back of a system of modern slavery that is the reality for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers there today,” said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow, as she warned that 12 workers may die each week if action is not taken. She said that harsh and dangerous conditions at work and cramped and squalid living quarters are to blame for the high death toll among the migrant workers.

A Guardian investigation revealed that 44 Nepalese workers died from June 4 to August 8, 2015, about half from heart failure or workplace accidents. Workers described forced labour in 50C heat, employers who retain salaries for several months as well as workers’ passports, making it impossible for them to leave. The workers were even being denied free drinking water.

“The investigation found sickness is endemic among workers living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions and hunger has been reported,” the Guardian report said. It said that 30 Nepalese construction workers took refuge in their country’s embassy and subsequently left the country. They claimed that they had received no pay.

The Indian ambassador in Qatar said that 82 Indian workers died in the first five months of 2015 and that 1,460 complained to the embassy about labour conditions and consular problems. More than 700 Indian workers died in Qatar between 2010 and 2012.

The US State Department said in its 2011 report that some of the migrant workers “face conditions indicative of involuntary servitude”. It said that some of the more common labour rights violations include beatings, withholding of payment, charging workers for benefits for which the employer is responsible, restrictions on freedom of movement including confiscation of passports, travel documents, or exit permits as well as arbitrary detention, threats of legal action, and sexual assault.

Under the provisions of Qatar’s sponsorship law, sponsors have the unilateral power to cancel workers’ residency permits, deny workers’ ability to change employers, report a worker as “absconded” to police authorities, and deny permission to leave the country. As a result, sponsors may restrict workers’ movements and workers may be afraid to report abuses or claim their rights. According to the ITUC, the visa sponsorship system allows the exaction of forced labour by making it difficult for a migrant worker to leave an abusive employer or travel overseas without permission.

In May 2012, Qatari officials declared their intention to allow the establishment of an independent trade union. Qatar also announced that it will scrap its sponsorship or kafala system for foreign labour, which requires that all foreign workers be sponsored by local employers. Additional changes to labour laws include a provision which guarantees that all workers’ salaries shall be paid directly into their bank accounts and new restrictions on working outdoors in the hottest hours during the summer.

However, none of these intentions have come to pass.

In October 2015 Qatar’s Emir did sign into law new reforms to the country’s sponsorship system, but the new law wouldn’t come into effect for another year.

Human Rights Watch said about the changes: “Reforms announced on October 27, 2015, still require low-paid migrant workers to get their employer’s permission to change jobs or to leave the country, a system that prevents workers from leaving abusive employers.”

How much is at stake?

The holding of the FIFA World Cup is a matter of prestige; it is not supposed to be a business enterprise. The 2014 football world cup cost Brazil $11 billion dollars. There were riots even in the soccer-loving nation over vast expenditures on stadiums and infrastructure which would largely be left unused after the mega event. The Mane Garrincha stadium in Brasilia which was constructed at a cost of $500 million is being used as a parking space for Brasilia’s buses to make up for the $188,000 it costs to maintain the stadium every month.

But where the Latin American nation of 200 million people had precious few resources, the Middle Eastern nation of 300,000 has extremely deep pockets. While Qatar does not even maintain wage standards for its immigrant labourers, its citizens have the highest per capita income in the world. The country is expected to spend $90 billion on holding the world cup. To put that into perspective, Pakistan’s entire national debt is about $60 billion.

With that much money riding on the World Cup, you would expect the rewards for Pakistan to be significant. But you would be disappointed. Labour Minister Raja Ashfaq Sarwar said last year that the newly trained workers would bring in $590 million in remittances to the country every year. But that amount is for 200,000 workers being sent to both Dubai and Qatar. For Qatar alone, the amount could be half that.

But even that little is not nothing. With dwindling exports, the country would already be staring at a huge balance of payments deficit if foreign remittances had not come to the government’s aid just in time. In the first six months of the current financial year (Jul-to Dec 2015) the country’s exports declined by a sharp 14.40 per cent, while its foreign remittances rose by 6.2 per cent, according to data released by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP).

In real terms, while the country lost about $1.7 billion in exports, it made up a third of that ($600 million) in workers’ remittances. Another increase of $590 million would indeed be a feather in the government’s cap. Additionally, Pakistan has so far been helped by low oil prices so that while the exports have dwindled, the import bill has also shrunk, but with the oil prices expected to make a small comeback later in the year, that advantage may also be lost soon.

This may be yet another reason why the Sharif government is not willing to look that particular horse in the mouth.

Accusations of bribery have been levelled against FIFA officials since the time they awarded the world cup to Qatar in 2010. Most of the FIFA officials have resigned or have been brought up on charges of corruption and bribery since then, including its president at the time, Sepp Blatter.