A Qatari envoy yesterday told Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng that the Gulf state was interested in receiving as many as 100,000 Cambodian workers. This interest has rekindled concerns for would-be migrants’ well-being among labour rights advocates, despite the envoy’s assurances they would be well looked after.
Saleh Saeed Al-Shawi, director of the Department of Legal Affairs at the Qatari Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, said in the meeting yesterday that for Cambodians to work in the emirate a plan should be created that includes a “protection mechanism” for migrant workers.
“Our labour minister told us that we can receive 33,000 Cambodian workers” immediately, Al-Shawi said, adding that he will share a list of Cambodian recruitment agencies with their Qatari counterparts.
“I hope we will form a committee [of Cambodian dignitaries] to travel to Qatar to see the development of the country and how we control the workers and protect migrant workers’ rights,” he said.
According to Al-Shawi, Qatari law requires employers to create bank accounts for workers to receive their salaries – “if they don’t obey, they will be punished”. Employers will also be responsible for covering round-trip airfare, he continued, adding that although there is no minimum wage regulation, “Qatar is the best country for wages”.
Labour Minister Sam Heng thanked Qatar for the “initiative” and legal protections offered, adding, however, “I think we have much work to do for worker protection and safety.”
“I want to know about the minimum wage in your country,” Heng added.
Spokesmen for the Cambodian and Qatari ministries of labour could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Moeun Tola, director of the labour rights group Central, said yesterday that he didn’t object to the government’s desire to send workers abroad but cautioned, “we need to make sure the legal system protects worker’s rights”.
Tola also wondered what recourse workers might have given the absence of a Cambodian embassy in Qatar.
“What happens if our migrant workers get abused? Who should they get help from?” he asked.
“Qatar has a bad historical record of human rights abuse . . . I think they need workers to construct the stadiums for the World Cup.”
Since the peninsular state won the bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup it has come under international scrutiny for its labour conditions, and an Amnesty International report in March revealed mistreatment at the construction site of one Qatari stadium. In April FIFA reportedly promised to create a panel to ensure decent working conditions in the emirate.
Despite reforms in 2015 to the country’s kafala sponsorship system, workers are still required to obtain permission from employers to change jobs or leave Qatar, preventing workers from escaping abusive situations, according to rights monitors.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said in an email that “Cambodian workers should not believe Qatar’s siren song of lucrative wages without exploitation”.
“Workers will leave their homes with huge debt burdens owed to Cambodian brokers, and arrive in Qatar with no freedom to escape from abusive employers.
“This is a recipe for rights abuse and a failed migration experience,” he said.
A report by the Gulf Center for Human Rights released in March said the 2015 labour reforms do not extend to domestic workers, such as maids.
What’s more, due to Qatari laws, “there are no civil society organisations working publicly to challenge the state on its handling of migrant welfare”, according to GCHR.
Ultimately, Tola said, the government should instead focus on creating opportunities for skilled labour domestically rather than risking abuses abroad.
“When [migrant workers] go work abroad they go and get jobs which earn very low salaries and are risky jobs,” he said.
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