By James M. Dorsey
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has dealt a blow to Qatari assertions that the Gulf state complies with global standards for workers, in a report that condemned the government for allowing state-owned Qatar Airways, in the words of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), to “violate international and national agreements and institutionalise discrimination”.
The report comes at a time that Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup is under increased scrutiny, as a result of the corruption scandal that has rocked world football body FIFA, and mounting criticism of Qatar’s failure to make good on promises to improve the working and living standards of migrant workers who constitute a majority of the population. Investigations in the United States and Switzerland are probing the integrity of the Qatari bid.
In the latest World Cup-related allegations, a Monaco bank account opened by disgraced former Brazilian Football Association president and FIFA vice-president Ricardo Teixeira two years after the FIFA vote in favour of Qatar showed millions of dollars in payments by a Qatari construction company, believed to have sponsored a Brazil-Argentina friendly in Doha in advance of the awarding of the World Cup.
The ILO report, based on a year-long enquiry in response to a complaint by the ITF and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), is also likely to impact other Gulf states, like the United Arab Emirates, that have been targeted by activists, and could focus attention on labour relations at the region’s other major airlines.
That is particularly true given that the ILO decision comes as Qatar Airways, alongside two other Gulf airlines, Emirates and Ettihad, both based in the UAE, is locked into battles with American carriers who allege that they have distorted competition by benefiting from tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies. The Gulf airlines have denied the allegation. Qatar Airways has hinted that the dispute potentially could lead to its departure from Oneworld, one of three global airline alliances.
Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al-Baker dismissed the ILO report, linking it to the dispute with US carriers. “I don’t give a damn about the ILO – I am there to run a successful airline. This is evidence of a vendetta they have against Qatar Airways and my country. My country has responded to the ILO accusations in a very robust way. We clarified the clauses in our contract,” Reuters quoted Al-Baker as saying on the sidelines of the International Paris Air Show.
Al-Baker’s comments were in line with Qatar’s recently adopted approach to reject criticism of its World Cup bid and pressure on the labour issue as racially motivated and constituting a concerted campaign to discredit the Gulf state.
While Qatar is not unjustified in its view that debate about the Gulf state is driven by ulterior motives among some of its critics, as well as prejudice, the Gulf state has used the strategy to evade answering specific questions and being more transparent in its responses.
To be fair, however, Qatar Airways has addressed some, but not all of the ILO’s concerns in changes to its employment contracts. The vast majority of the airlines’ cabin crews are women, while migrant workers account for 90% of its work force.
The report is nonetheless likely to cast further doubt on the sincerity of Qatari promises to reform its kafala (sponsorship) system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers, and increase pressure on the Gulf state to demonstrate that its engagement in recent years with human rights and trade union activists was more than a façade.
By putting responsibility for Qatar Airways’ employment policies on the shoulders of the government, the report effectively targeted the top leadership in a country in which decision-making is highly centralised.
It did so at a politically sensitive moment. Mounting questioning about the integrity of the Qatari World Cup bid and of labour relations in the Gulf state has on the one hand reinforced popular support for hosting the tournament in a burst of nationalist feeling.
Yet, while on the one hand welcome, greater nationalist sentiment complicates the government’s ability to tinker with the labour system in a country where the citizenry accounts for a mere 12% of the population and fears that any concession would threaten the purity of their culture as well as their grip on society and the state.
The report moreover targets what is perhaps the most successful pillar of Qatar’s multi-pronged soft power strategy. Qatar Airways as a world class airline with top service alongside Doha’s new Hamad International Airport has been effective in projecting the Gulf state’s image and positioning it as a hub linking continents.
The report charged that Qatar Airways, with the backing of the government, practices gender discrimination in violation of the ILO convention by retaining the contractual right to fire cabin crew that become pregnant and forbidding female employees to be dropped off at or picked up from company premises by a man other than their father, brother or husband.
In contrast to Qatar Airways, other pillars of Qatar’s soft power strategy have proven less successful. The World Cup has turned out to be a double-edged sword, given the controversy it has sparked and Qatar’s feeble response. Qatar’s high-paced, mediation-focussed foreign policy has won praise for the Gulf state’s ability to achieve the release of hostages held by groups the West refuses to deal with and its success in bringing parties to the negotiating table that have been fighting each other on the battlefield.
At the same time, Qatar’s relationships to those groups, including Hamas, the Islamist militia that controls the Gaza Strip, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist groups, has made it a target among conservatives in the West and Israel, despite willingness to use the Gulf state’s good offices. High profile Qatari investment in Western real estate and the arts have largely been seen as the whims of the rulers of one of the world’s richest states.
“The gaze of world opinion is locked on the behaviour of the Qatari government – over Qatar Airways, over its abhorrent treatment of migrant workers, and over the World Cup. In Geneva today Qatar has been proved wanting. We have shown that money doesn’t buy silence. The nation is on trial. It cannot evade its responsibilities. It has to begin to do the right thing,” gloated ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title