Today's House of Lords debates - Thursday 24 July 2014

Version: Uncorrected | Updated 21:29

House of Lords

Thursday, 24 July 2014.

11 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.

Qatar: Migrant Workers


11.06 am

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent assessment they have made of the situation of migrant workers in Qatar.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD):

My Lords, we welcome the serious manner in which the Qatari Government are responding to concerns about the treatment of migrant workers. We fully support Qatar’s intention to reform the current labour law. We encourage the Government of Qatar to put forward a timetable for passing and then implementing the proposed legislation. We stand ready to support these efforts where we can.

Lord Monks (Lab):

My Lords, the House should be aware that 964 migrant workers from India, Bangladesh and Nepal were killed on Qatari building sites in 2012 and 2013. There are many other countries with unrecorded deaths. This is all part of the run-up to the 2022 World Cup. Many migrant workers work under a system called kafala, a medieval bonded labour scheme. Will the Government exert maximum pressure on Qatar to enforce a ban on kafala and proper safety standards on the construction sites? If necessary, will they call for Qatar to lose the right to host the World Cup in 2022? Additionally, will the Government disqualify contractors guilty of poor health and safety practices from tendering for jobs in the UK?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

My Lords, the 2022 World Cup is a matter for FIFA. Since I know that there have been considerable allegations in Qatar that the British press are campaigning for the 2022 World Cup to be transferred to the UK, let me make it clear that we entirely accept that it was agreed the 2022 World Cup would take place outside Europe. We have no intention of applying for that particular competition. We might well be interested in a later competition and wish to campaign actively for that.

On the question of pressure on Qatar, we welcome the moves it is making, but I quote the United Nations Human Rights Council report on the situation in Qatar, discussed the other month:

“The Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants welcomed the positive legislative developments in Qatar that had made it illegal for sponsors to confiscate passports. However, he noted the need for effective enforcement of that law”.

We are seeing useful developments in the rhetoric and legislative framework. The question of enforcement is a serious one.

Baroness Williams of Crosby (LD):

My Lords, I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Monks, in raising this issue. Qatar as a relatively progressive Arab state is in a position to give an example to many others around it, not least in the other Trucial states. In addition to the very high levels of fatalities and casualties on building sites, there is a steady flow of wounds and sometimes fatal injuries suffered by women working as domestic labour in the Trucial states, not least as nurses, cooks and nannies. May I therefore strongly support the argument that the United Kingdom Government, who have a special status among the Trucial states, should continue constructively to press Qatar to give the example that it could give to treat migrants in the way that it treats its own citizens?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

I thank the noble Baroness for raising the question of domestic labour, which is also an issue across the GCC. In the UK’s contribution to the debate at the UN Human Rights Council, our representative made two recommendations; first, to:

“Reform the sponsorship system, removing the requirement for foreign workers to obtain permission before leaving Qatar or moving jobs”,

and, secondly, to:

“Reform the Labour laws to ensure domestic workers are legally protected and to improve the enforcement of these laws ensuring the rights of foreign workers in Qatar are guaranteed”.

Lord Clinton-Davis (Lab):

Does the Minister agree that the views of Her Majesty’s Government can be very influential in this matter? Does he further agree that presenting views officially and not being silent would serve an immensely positive purpose?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

My Lords, the Government have a close relationship with Qatar and we constantly express our views. We do so also through multilateral and UN channels. One of the issues is that the sending states, mainly south Asian states, do not make as strong representations as many others about the position of workers in Qatar. I have to say in mitigation that the population of Qatar rose by 15% last year, almost entirely accounted for by foreign workers coming in. Part of the problem is that a huge boom is going on and the system does not have the capacity to cope with what is happening as a result.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Con):

My Lords, while I have every sympathy with the Question and think it is very valid, are we in a position to criticise others when in this country care workers looking after people at home are still being paid about £2 an hour because they get nothing for travel time between jobs? Therefore, it is time that we set our own house in order.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very fair point.

Lord Bach (Lab):

My Lords, what discussions have the Government had—and this follows on from what the Minister said to my noble friend Lord Monks—with FIFA and with the British Football Association regarding migrant workers in Qatar and the 2022 World Cup?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

My Lords, I am looking round to see whether the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, whose subject this is, is here. FIFA has had a great deal of conversations with the Government of Qatar and others. I have before me a workers charter agreed by FIFA and Qatar—

Lord Bach:

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. What discussions have the British Government had?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

The British Government of course have discussions with FIFA, but, like the International Olympic Committee, this is an autonomous body with which we have a dialogue, but we are unable to give instructions. We support everything that FIFA is doing to try to improve construction issues in relation to the World Cup 2022 and of course we have many other issues relating to the necessary reform of FIFA.

Lord Dubs (Lab):

Will the Minister confirm that workers are not allowed to join trade unions in Qatar? If they were, might not some of the problems we are talking about be better dealt with?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

My Lords, the workers charter issued in January refers to including workers’ representatives in forums to discuss labour conditions. I look forward to that being developed.