USQBC President Pens Open Letter to Amnesty International in Response to Recent Report | US-Qatar Business Council
USQBC President Pens Open Letter to Amnesty International in Response to Recent Report

Last week Amnesty International released a report about the working conditions of migrant laborers in Qatar that to the chagrin of USQBC overlooked the new laws, regulations and infrastructure development projects that Qatar has implemented to address this pressing concern.

In response to the report, Amb. Patrick Theros, the President of the US-Qatar Business Council, sent a detailed letter to Amnesty International explaining his disagreements with their report. You can read his letter below.

Open Letter to Amnesty International Regarding its Report on Qatar Labor

Following Amnesty International’s recent report on working conditions migrant laborers face in Qatar, I believe it is necessary question many of their conclusions in the report and its failure to address broader issues that put Qatar’s problems in perspective. Amnesty’s report neglects the unregulated global network that enables migrant laborers to find their way to many countries in the world, and not just Qatar. It fails to examine the full scope of the complex problem that Qatar faces and the requisite patience and collaboration needed to resolve these issues. Amnesty would have done well to explore the history of the labor practices in the Gulf Cooperation Council nations and to address the complexity of changing decades of practice and law that date back to the British Raj.  Finally, the Amnesty report ignores real progress in Qatar and casually dismisses Qatari explanations. In fairness, Qatar’s high profile in recent years ranging from hosting the World Cup in 2022 to its very active role in helping to midwife the Arab Spring makes it a juicy publicity target.

Having said that, I will be the first to admit that Qatar has serious issues relating to the condition of foreign workers.  Like all its GCC neighbors, Qatar imposed the “kefala” system.  Workers have endured a long chain of abuses beginning with recruitment agencies in their home countries extracting exorbitant fees, switching contracts and failing to pay the promised wages. Workers have had their passports seized, endured terrible living conditions, long and unhealthy working conditions, restrictions on changing jobs or employers, and an institutional lack of legal recourse from the authorities.

Qatar parts company, however, with its neighbors in that it quickly acknowledged the problems, addressed these accusations and has worked to correct them.  The assertion that Qatar has paid lip service to accusations and done nothing about them does not reflect what has actually transpired on the ground.  I fear that sensationalist and exaggerated reports contribute little to the solution other than gaining notoriety for those who write them.

The problem begins before the worker sets foot in Qatar or any receiving country.  A network of middlemen and human traffickers in the sending countries regularly entices laborers from impoverished nations to sign work contracts for countries from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia, including Qatar, that promise high wages.  The workers then arrive in the receiving countries to learn to their chagrin that the employer never promised those wages. Some unscrupulous employers have failed to pay their workers even the sums promised. One can argue the degree to which the putative employers are aware of these practices but in that case, Amnesty should have conducted investigations in the sending countries as well. Rather, Amnesty’s report relies entirely on interviews with a relatively small sample of workers in Qatar. In fact, it only cites individual interviews out of context.  I could not find any indication in the Amnesty report of how many workers its reporters interviewed who did not complain of problems.

The Amnesty report fails to acknowledge the enactment and implementation of new laws and regulations that tackle the problem at both ends. On November 1, 2015 new Qatari legislation came into effect requiring that all expat workers have bank accounts monitored by the authorities.  Under the new rules the employer of record must present a signed contract for each employee that lays out monthly wages.  The employer must pay those wages electronically into these monitored accounts.  Failure to pay on time and in full automatically generates a report to the Central Bank and to the Ministry of Labor which, again automatically, generates a fine on the employer.  The new system applies retroactively to all foreign workers in Qatar from bank presidents to brick hod carriers. More importantly, it applies to all new workers coming into Qatar. Simply, any employer who wishes to bring a new worker into the country must present to a Qatari consulate abroad the work contract and proof that a bank account can be opened before the consulate will issue a visa.  The unscrupulous recruiters are not happy.

Unfortunately, application of this law will not come into force for domestics employed by private persons until the government has devised a system for allowing families to make electronic payments.  They are working on it, though.

The positives of these new regulations are many, but effectively incorporating them into existing institutional structures has costs. The new system has put a tremendous strain on the banking system because the number of bank accounts has gone from about 300,000 to almost two million in about a year.  The Qatari banks lack enough brick and mortar branches and ATM machines to cope with the new requirements.  This has created problems for the banks dealing with international norms especially the requirement to “know your customer” that can cause a bank to run afoul of US regulators and law enforcement.  “Knowing your customer” if the customer is a semi-literate laborer from Tamil Nadu who has never used a bank before in his life presents real institutional challenges that Qatar is currently addressing.

Implementing the new laws also created new obstacles for small Qatari businesses that had not automated their accounting and payroll. Until now they kept their books with stubby pencils and paper ledgers and paid their workmen at the labor camp in cash in an envelope.  This has now changed but raises new problems.  For example, the semi-literate worker who must learn to use an ATM debit card.

Qatar has tripled the number of labor inspectors and has instituted regular inspections of living accommodations.  Minimal space standards and maximum occupancy, requirement for cooling, running water and toilets are being enforced.  This program has just begun, many workers continue to live in sub-standard conditions and full compliance is probably a year or more off.  But real progress, not just hype as stated in the article, is being made.

By law, employers may no longer require workers to surrender their passports.  This has created a problem for many workers who do not want to keep their passports in their living quarters for fear of theft.  Qatar is now in the process of finding an adequate middle ground that fulfills the needs of the employer, the employee and the international community.

Qatar has modified the kefala system to prevent fickle or abusive restraints on the ability of workers to leave the country. In the past, a worker had to take a letter from his employer to the Ministry of Interior Passports division granting permission to depart Qatar before the Ministry would issue an exit visa.  Now the worker applies directly for an exit visa at the passports office.  The passports office notifies the employer of record of the application.  Unless the employer registers a legally justified objection within working three days, the passports office issues the requested exit visa.

Critics have criticized this modification as being no different than the previous regime.  I beg to differ.  Undoing the kafala regime in its entirety in Qatar and across the region requires undoing and rewriting legislation going back to British occupation in the early 20th century.  Under the British standards, the sponsor of every visa into the Trucial States assumed financial and legal responsibility for the actions of the person sponsored into the country including debt and violations of criminal and civil law.  This has been both codified and remains precedent in law throughout the GCC.  Transferring a worker from one sponsor to another requires transfer of the legal responsibilities.  As we know from our own legal systems, undoing seventy or eighty years of law and practice and developing new relationships takes time and meets heavy opposition. Qatar and the GCC states are no different, and it is about time that the international community acknowledged this reality.

Ambassador (Ret) Patrick N. Theros
President, The US-Qatar Business Council


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