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House of Commons Hansard
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Labour Reforms: Qatar
14 March 2018
Volume 637

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered labour reforms in Qatar.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship for the first time, Sir Christopher. It is no secret that I am a trade unionist—I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, should they wish to know more. I believe that participating in a trade union is an act of solidarity and that acting collectively strengthens the individual and the whole.

When I recruit members, I use a common analogy about sticks: one stick can easily be snapped, but it is harder to snap 10 sticks bunched together, and harder still to snap 1,000. That applies at home, when we back University and College Union members engaged in industrial action, and across the world. Our movement is international. The location and the industry may change, but we still have a responsibility to stand up for one another.

I secured this debate in that vein. Qatar might seem a long way from the north side of Nottingham, but we know that workers have struggled and even died there. I feel a responsibility to use my privileged position in this place to highlight that. In doing so, I follow other hon. Members who have done similar or who have visited, and Unite the Union, which has made it an issue of national interest thanks to its terrific efforts.

I will give a potted history of workers’ conditions in Qatar, talk about the challenges that workers face there, talk about the positive reforms put in place by the Qatari Government, and look to the future. I will not give a pious homily. In my experience, they rarely work—and I am not very good at them. Whether it is trying to persuade my neighbours to make better health decisions, or trying to persuade international Governments about workers’ conditions, I find that wagging my finger is rarely the best way to do it. Instead, I intend to be clear about the problems, to recognise the progress made and to be practical about the future.

Qatar has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. In a 15-year period from the late ’90s, the GDP per capita almost tripled thanks to its natural assets. The CIA’s factbook estimates that Qatar is the second-richest country in the world by GDP per capita. Alongside that significant change, there has been an obvious effort to put the country on the world map. Infrastructure development has been the No. 1 priority, with the Government planning to spend more than 47% of the national budget on major infrastructure projects this year. Of course, that is best highlighted by the coming 2022 World cup.

Qatar is a rapidly changing country. Change at that pace requires wholesale building, which in turn requires lots and lots of labour, and, inevitably, migrant workers. That can be a good thing if workers can secure high-quality, properly paid jobs with decent working conditions—indeed, workers from 183 countries sent home over £11 billion in 2016—but it can be a bad thing if the treatment of human beings is not a priority and if the project comes first, rather than the individual’s interest. That is what we are discussing today.

The award of the World cup seems a reasonable place to start. In 2010, when Russia and Qatar secured the 2018 and 2022 World cups respectively, those decisions were controversial, and they continue to be so for many reasons. However, we do not often talk about the important, intangible benefits that the World cup can bring. The 2018 World cup will be the first hosted in eastern Europe, and the 2022 World cup will be the first hosted in the middle east, and only the second in Asia. Prior to that, other than when it was in South Africa in 2010, the global tournament has been anything but global.

The World cup, and other mega-sporting events, is an incredible way to bring people of different nationalities and cultures together to bond over a simple shared love, especially in difficult times. Qatar’s World cup will allow people to learn first hand about the Arab world—and vice versa—who might not have done so otherwise.

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I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I travelled to Qatar last month. Migrant workers are involved in building infrastructure and stadiums for the forthcoming World cup in 2022, and a lot of those stadiums will be sent to third-world countries and developing countries in places such as Africa after the World cup, so that children there can benefit from that infrastructure as well. Does my hon. Friend share my enthusiasm for that?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention, which I completely agree with. I will talk about legacy shortly.

I feel strongly about this issue, and I co-chair the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on sport, modern slavery and human rights, which focuses on mega-sporting events and their impact on host communities, as my hon. Friend talked about. Growing up in Manchester, I saw at first hand the transformation that the Commonwealth games had on the city. We should hope to see that sort of legacy from all these events. I encourage hon. Members to come to the all-party group’s events—we have one on Monday—if they wish to participate further in that.

Qatar’s population followed its economy in increasing, from just under 600,000 at the turn of the millennium to around 2.6 million today. Most of that increase comes from migration, with 88% of the population made up of migrants from countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines. That has worked well for the Government and for business owners, but for the workers, conditions have often been dire. Although the acquisition of the World cup brought global attention and pressure, workers’ conditions are still not at a standard that we would expect for ourselves. As we talk about the positive developments, we have to bear that in mind. We must continue to press for improvement.

Until 2016, the kafala system was at the root of the problem. All unskilled migrant workers were subject to it, as they are in much of the middle east. The system linked workers to an in-country sponsor, who was responsible for their visa and legal status. It was described by Amnesty International as a system that

“facilitates forced labour and a range of other abuses.”

As the home of football, we would not want that tied to the beautiful game. In 2014, four years after the successful World cup bid, that was just one of nine exploitation issues that Amnesty highlighted for urgent reform.

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I also direct hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because I travelled to Qatar last month. When I visited, I was pleased to hear about the improvements made to workers’ rights and labour reforms. The International Labour Organisation has stated that workers “enjoy better protection” and has agreed to open an office to oversee the reforms. What more can the UK do to support Qatar in that process?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that constructive intervention and for her insights. At the end I will come to, not necessarily what more can be done, but a list of the current plans, which we must support. On paper they are very good, and if we can make the reality match the rhetoric, something good indeed will have happened, but I will talk about the background first, so we understand the context.

The other issues that Amnesty highlighted were the exit permit system, which allows employers to stop workers leaving the country, the lack of protection for domestic workers in labour law, and the late or non-payment of wages to migrant workers.

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I visited Qatar on a delegation in 2014, and I was appalled by the workers’ poor living and working conditions. My hon. Friend is helpfully setting out some of the concerns. My understanding is that some things have improved since 2014, but there is still the routine non-payment of wages, and agencies in the sending country give false expectations about salaries and charge exorbitant fees. Although conditions might have improved on World cup stadium sites, health and safety on other construction sites is still very poor. How can those things be improved?

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It is important to remember that although the World cup will get the most focus, because of its global interest, it does not make up the majority of construction. There is a lot of development going on, and we must look at those other developments to ensure that the positive changes from the World cup are extended. It is no coincidence that when my hon. Friend and others went on their delegations, things started to get better. That is why I wanted to secure the debate.

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It is clear that significant improvements have been made to workers’ rights in Qatar, hopefully with more to come. Does my hon. Friend agree that many other countries in the region, including in the Gulf, need to mirror those improvements? Clearly, Qatar is leading the way in the region.

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My hon. Friend has slightly tipped off my grand finale, because the important point is that what is secured and achieved in Qatar needs to spread out to neighbouring countries that still have that relationship to the kafala system. If we do that, we will have secured something in this struggle.

The last couple of issues that Amnesty highlighted were harsh and dangerous working conditions, obstacles to access to justice, the denial of the right to form a trade union—something very basic and fundamental to us in this country—and the failed enforcement of existing labour standards. Many of those issues have now been addressed and further action is on the horizon, as I shall set out shortly. However, it is worth understanding what they mean, which is that workers are dying. Only last year, a British man from Hove, Zachary Cox, fell to his death when his safety harness failed.

It has been a real challenge—perhaps Ministers can support us in this venture—to get good information on how many people have lost their lives as a result of labour exploitation. Lots of numbers are floating around, but the death toll is certainly in four figures. The Washington Post said that 1,200 had died in construction on World cup sites alone. That claim has since been picked apart a little, but we know that the real figure is an awful one that will continue to grow unless the change that we must support happens. We have responsibilities, and I certainly feel a responsibility to use this privileged place to talk about the issue.

In December 2016, in response to the outrage about the kafala system and the need to change it, the Qatari Government passed what is known as Law No. 21. It offered many reforms; the Qatari Government said that it would strike a fine balance between the rights of workers, Qatari culture and the needs of Qatari business, promising sweeping and significant reform. However, the view on the ground was that that had not happened. The situation has developed since, but the context is important. Human rights groups have pointed out that the law did not address the power of employers over workers, exit permits or passport confiscations. Some of the changes were a little cosmetic.

Three areas in particular need to be revisited: sponsorship reform, exit permits and passport confiscation. Under Law No. 21, the two-year ban on re-entering Qatar after leaving an employer was replaced with a stay tied to the duration of a contract. That grants a little more freedom but still leaves workers unable to move jobs during a contract, so the protections are not very strong.

With respect to exit permits, workers were required under the 2009 sponsorship law to have express permission from their employers in order to leave the country. That violated the universal declaration of human rights, the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, and the Arab charter on human rights—all of which Qatar is a signatory to. The Qatari Government has said that under the new law,

“freedom of movement is explicitly guaranteed”.

However, Amnesty International has said that,

“their employers will still be able to stop them going home.”

As per the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, the exit permit system applies to few, if any, migrant workers, and

“does not justify the pre-emptive punishment of thousands.”

Again, we need to look at that.

Passport confiscation used to be illegal in Qatar and could result in a fine, although in practice it rarely did. Employers are now permitted to confiscate passports, although there is a potential fine for breach of conditions. Amnesty International has raised concerns about that.

I do not think the new law reaches the level of sweeping and significant reform, and there is clearly much to do. However, significant progress has been reported, and it is important that we acknowledge it, as hon. Members have done. We need to give the Qatari Government the credit they deserve and, hopefully, support them in going all the way. Significantly and helpfully, the UN International Labour Organisation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) referred to, has agreed to partner with the Qatari Government to implement true reforms. The Qatari ambassador to the UK has assured me that those reforms will “strengthen protections” for the

“expatriate community, so that their freedom and rights are secure.”

Again, we will be very interested to see them.

Another measure that the Qatari Government are trying to introduce is the implementation of a wage protection system, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) said, which would require wages for workers to be paid locally. The ILO describes the system as

“a positive measure which, if implemented effectively, could contribute to addressing the recurring issue of the non-payment…of wages.”

Yet another measure is the introduction of a temporary minimum wage—a matter that we in this country feel very strongly about—while an assessment is carried out to determine a fixed minimum wage. Workers must also receive accommodation, food and healthcare from their employers, but again, it is important that we ensure that that happens across all development, as well as on World cup sites.

The domestic workers law sets out several rights for workers, including the right to terminate employment, along with provisions on holidays, end-of-service bonuses, improved access to justice and penalties for violations. Construction of brand-new accommodation for workers is ongoing, and I know that visiting delegations have shown a real interest in it. A national committee for combating human trafficking has been established. Bilateral agreements have been reached, and other work has been done with origin countries to combat the issue at source, including licensing of recruitment agencies. There has also been increased inspection and enforcement of housing and working conditions.

These are good reforms that would make things better for a lot of people, so it is really important that they are followed through. I spoke to Amnesty only this morning, and its response is still a little mixed, especially with respect to sponsorship, so it is clearly an issue to look into further. I am delighted that the Qatari Government have asked to meet me, and I will raise all these points with them. I believe we have a duty—I certainly feel a personal duty—to keep asking questions and asking for evidence to ensure that the reforms are delivered.

Amnesty, Unite and Caabu—the Council for Arab-British Understanding—have all supported me in identifying plenty of issues that need to be resolved. They have made it clear that there has been an obvious difference and that action has been taken. Other organisations have given similar praise. The general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, has praised

“the start of real reforms in Qatar which will bring to an end the use of modern slavery and puts the country on the pathway to meeting its international legal obligations on workers’ rights”.

There is a real prize here. I slightly buried the lede when I answered the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), but if pressure and improvements in Qatar mean that standards are pushed up across the region—in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Oman and Bahrain—we will have achieved something really important. It will all have started from the visits and the interest of Unite and others. By going there, going into cupboards and looking at security harnesses in the way that trade unionists do, they will have achieved something exceptional on a regional scale.

I thank my friends at Amnesty, Caabu and Unite for helping to develop my work in the area and helping me with this debate. As a result of their efforts, lives will be saved and improved. I know that they will be keen to stay the course to ensure that the reality matches the rhetoric. I will certainly do my bit.

I have gone through quite a lot of the timeline, but the most important part is still to come. It is important that we recognise the progress that has been made, but in the spirit of friendship and, most importantly, solidarity with Qatari workers, we need to press for more—to press for the job to be finished. We must offer whatever co-operation we can to support that. I am looking forward to a 22-year-old Phil Foden leading England to World cup glory in 2022—he will probably be Manchester City captain by then.

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Never going to happen.

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It is certainly going to happen. More importantly, I hope that, long before then, we will see a Qatar in which 1.7 million workers have the rights and protections that they deserve.

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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on securing it and on setting the scene so comprehensively.

I have been a massive football fan all my life. For those who do not know, I am a Leicester City supporter and have been for 48 years, since long before they won the premier league—we never used to have much to celebrate. I am interested in football and obviously I am interested in Qatar, which will host the 2022 World cup. I wait for each World cup with great anticipation. We do not see as much of them as we would like to, but watching them is something to enjoy with family and friends—there is a real buzz about it. Sadly, unlike some people, I have never been able to predict exactly which country will win each group and which will ultimately win the cup, but I always hope that it will be one of the home nations. That is what I look forward to.

In the build-up to the 2022 World cup, however, joy has turned to shock because of the alleged treatment of the workers who are building the stadiums and facilities. I do not think the hon. Gentleman cited a figure, but some newspapers say that more than 1,200 people have so far died while building the stadiums and facilities. Although we are in no way responsible for health and safety executives around the world, I believe we have an international obligation to ensure that in an event that hosts our football teams, the competition is carried out to an adequate standard.

A BBC article states:

“Living and working conditions for some migrants in Qatar are appalling. Long hours in the blazing heat, low pay and squalid dormitories, are a daily ordeal for thousands—and they cannot leave without an exit visa…And many workers have died.”

The article cites

“a report by the International Trades Union Confederation, called The Case Against Qatar. The ITUC went to the embassies of Nepal and India, two countries which are the source of many of the migrant workers who go to Qatar”,

although not all of them. It continues:

“Those embassies had counted more than 400 deaths a year between them—a total of 1,239 deaths in the three years to the end of 2013.”

On Tuesday, I watched an exposé on the morning news about Qatar, obesity and the rise of diabetes. It has been said that the World cup will bring lots of opportunities for sport, and the people of Qatar have been encouraged to get involved in sport to reduce diabetes. That is Qatar’s plan, but this debate is about what is happening to the workers, which is shocking. It is past time that labour relations were brought up to an acceptable standard. The building industry is obviously building more than World cup-related facilities, but the fact that construction is part of the strategy to provide infrastructure to host the games means that we have some level of obligation. That is why we are here today; I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North on setting the scene and on giving us the opportunity to participate in the debate.

Reforms have been proposed, including setting a minimum wage and allowing workers to leave the country without their employer’s permission by using exit visas. There now seems to be a willingness to continue to make improvements and we welcome that; it is a step in the right direction. It is also necessary, and we must do our part through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and UN representatives, to ensure that this process continues, for the sake of all those who leave their home to provide a living for their family but face the possibility of not returning home.

Those who come from Nepal, Tibet or other countries are not heading off to war; they are heading off to a building site and therefore they expect to come home. And whenever 1,239 workers do not return home, you know something? We ask questions and I believe this House has a responsibility to ask those questions through our Minister and our Government.

To conclude, I am pleased that some reforms have been made, but I urge our Minister, given the position and the power that he has, to put some pressure on Qatar to ensure that the reforms are carried through and go further. We must do what we can to increase the diplomatic pressure, to see changes for the better. Our Minister is very active; he is very responsive to debates such as this one. I look to him and to the Government to provide the response that we want to see.

I will not be going to the World cup in Qatar—I would probably be unable to, even if Northern Ireland qualify—but I am concerned for the workers there and that is what this debate is about. I urge our Minister and our Government to do all they can to ensure that those workers are safe and have the facilities, conditions and health conditions that we have here. They should have those things in Qatar; let us make sure that they do.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), not just on obtaining the debate but because it is, as he rightly said, on a very important issue. I also congratulate him on the way in which he presented the arguments, which I thought was exceptionally fair and even-handed.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is little to be served by our standing here in Westminster delivering pious sermons, not least because although we have within our own legal systems good standards of labour rights, they are not universal and they are not always applied. I think back, during my time in this House, to the tragic deaths of the cockle pickers on Morecambe Bay. I am the MP for Orkney and Shetland, so I have very close links to the fishing industry. I know that some truly appalling incidents have been reported of migrant crews from outside the European economic area and the conditions in which they have worked in our own country in recent years. So we must approach this subject with a bit of humility, and that is exactly what the hon. Gentleman did.

I should also declare an interest, as the chair of the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group. Twice in recent years I have visited Qatar; it is outlined in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I say to the hon. Gentleman and to all others in the Chamber that they are most welcome to engage with the all-party group. We have regular contact with the Qatari embassy here and I have also made it my business to engage with human rights non-governmental organisations that are working in the region. The last visit to Qatar that I was part of was in February 2017. We were hosted by the British embassy in Doha and we met a number of the human rights NGOs and other campaigning organisations working in the region.

We have challenged the Qataris on many occasions in relation to the matters that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is from the Democratic Unionist party, have raised. There is no point in pulling our punches; we add no value if we stand here as apologists, or as people explaining the inadequacies in the systems that we find in other countries. However, I say to the House that on all the occasions when we have raised, tackled and quite robustly put to the Qataris the shortcomings that have been identified, I have always found in them a willingness to engage, and as we have seen in recent years, that engagement has resulted in significant progress.

In particular, in entering into the three-year programme of technical co-operation with the International Labour Organisation, Qatar has done something that I hope will produce the sort of change within the system that we all want to see. We have already seen the abolition of the kafala system and the introduction of a temporary minimum wage, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North said.

Most importantly, from my experience of engaging with the Qatari Government I am encouraged by the establishment of the national committee for combating human trafficking. I say that because I have engaged in recent times with the National Human Rights Committee in Qatar, which is a body set up by the Government but independent of the Government. If the committee for combating human trafficking is allowed and able to operate in the same way as the human rights committee does, I suggest that there is significant opportunity for making the sort of progress that we want to see in Qatar.

It is almost a heresy for a Scotsman to say this, but I am absolutely indifferent on the subject of football. The World cup holds little joy for me, or indeed probably —in all sincerity—for many Scotsmen when it comes to the subject of our own national team’s prospects. However, I have always been quite struck by the vision that underpins the idea of the first Arab World cup. It is a quite remarkable vision that Qatar has. If Qatar is to justify it, and do it justice, it will have to come up to the mark on labour rights and other human rights.

That gives the Qataris a real opportunity. With every major sporting occasion, we always speak about a legacy. It is my sincere hope, and it is an aspiration that I know is shared by many in Qatar itself, that the legacy of the 2022 World cup may be that the standard of labour rights and human rights, which will bear scrutiny in the future, will mean that the recent history of Qatar that we have seen—the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) witnessed it for herself—will genuinely be consigned to history.

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Thank you, Sir Christopher, for giving me the opportunity to speak, and I also thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for securing this debate. There have been many jokes about the World cup, but I am looking forward to 2022, when Scotland are victorious in the final against England.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am a proud member of that international organisation called the trade union movement. I think there were three key themes in his contribution: what is happening; what we can do to promote sustainable development and the fight against poverty, injustice and inequality internationally; and what we can do to promote best practice here in the United Kingdom.

Those are certainly the themes that I want to pick up, because, as the hon. Gentleman said, in October last year the Government in Qatar committed to reforms to improve significantly the physical and employment situation of 2 million migrant workers, including ending the kafala system, which has already been referred to and which the International Trade Union Confederation had described as modern slavery. Those concessions by the Qatari Government were reported by state media and announced just before the International Labour Organisation was due to decide whether to hold a formal commission of inquiry into conditions in Qatar for migrant workers.

The human rights abuses that we have seen—workers being tied to a single employer, low pay, poor accommodation, labouring in dangerous heat and, sadly, hundreds of unexplained deaths—have been subject to intense global scrutiny and criticism. Foreign workers can only come to the Arab Gulf states through a sponsor, as the hon. Gentleman said. However, the essence of that kafala system was the relationship binding the employee to the employer, which has often been criticised as being like slavery, because the employer could dictate the recruitment process and working conditions, while workers were often forced to pay their own medical insurance fees and surrender their passports and identification papers.

Much work has been done, not only here but in the Scottish Parliament, in relation to how we can make a contribution to sustainable development and the fight against poverty, injustice and inequality internationally. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, pledged to implement the global goals and made a dual commitment to tackle poverty and inequality at home in Scotland and to help developing countries grow in a fair and sustainable manner. Our commitment to contribute internationally to the global goals must reflect and mirror our domestic aims and ambitions for Scotland. That includes building the economy; tackling poverty and inequality; providing quality healthcare and education; promoting affordable and clean energy; and ensuring a sustainable environment. I am sure that we all want to play our part in contributing to the development of our partner countries through those global goals.

The international framework and international development strategy agreed in the Scottish Parliament have set the direction for Scotland’s international activity. It sets out the priorities that will contribute to Scotland’s ongoing ambition to be a good global citizen continuing to make distinctive contributions in addressing global challenges. We should recognise that businesses have a crucial role to play in preventing and remedying breaches of human rights. Although states, rather than the private sector, have the principal responsibility for respecting and protecting human rights, we can encourage businesses to take positive action, for example by actively managing the risk of being party to human rights abuses. Businesses can exert a direct influence through their trade and investment decisions.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) rightly raised the issue of trafficking and exploitation. In Scotland, a strategy was adopted in May last year that was agreed by Police Scotland, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. That is an important strategy. A number of case studies were produced to show what human trafficking involved and the impact it had on victims. A number of people who had been subjected to human trafficking played their part in developing that strategy.

To conclude, the hon. Member for Nottingham North said that we should promote best practice at home. There are some areas where the UK can help. It can certainly help by looking at how to provide better workplace protection for people in the gig economy. I ask the Government to look seriously at my Workers (Definition and Rights) Bill, which seeks to do that. We certainly need to look at parts of our economy where there are exploitative zero-hours contracts. We need to show that we in the UK lead by example when it comes to workers’ rights and human rights across the globe.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on introducing this debate. He is well known on the Labour Benches and, I think, throughout the House for his defence of trade union rights and for his trade union background. He has a brilliant record on that, and he is now bringing those skills and that knowledge to the House, where he is promoting the rights of union members, trade unions and workers.

In my hon. Friend’s introductory speech, he said that the treatment of workers must be a priority, and that is where we are starting from this afternoon. He talked about the benefits of holding the World cup finals outside Europe for the first time, and I agree with him on that, although like the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) I am no great football fan. Clearly, it will benefit football, the people of that region and all who take part in the competition.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said that workers’ conditions are not what we would accept in the United Kingdom, and I totally agree with him. That is why we are having this debate. He said that it is the responsibility of MPs to draw attention to abuses in places such as Qatar, and that is exactly what he has done so well this afternoon. He concluded his speech by saying that lives will be saved and improved, and we have to recognise the progress that has been made, although there is much still to be done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I hope he does not mind me calling him my hon. Friend, but every time I speak in this place, he is there making a contribution, and we have got to know each other well over the years—pointed to the level of obligation we have in this place to draw attention to workers’ rights in Qatar because it is hosting the World cup. He said his concern is for the workers, and I certainly agree with him.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said that we need to approach this subject with some humility because perhaps we are not perfect here in the United Kingdom, and of course he is right. He is the chair of the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group. He pointed out that although he is indifferent to the World cup itself, Qatar is important to him. I will certainly take up his offer to attend some of the meetings of the all-party group.

As we have heard today, Qatar is home to 1.7 million migrant workers as of 2015. Some 40% of those workers are employed in the construction sector. I hate to quote the Daily Mail, but I will, because in 2015 it highlighted the lack of a minimum wage, with some workers, such as carpenters, paid as little as 56p an hour. That is disgraceful. By 2017, more than 1,200 migrant workers had been killed in Qatar in the construction industry and other industries and trades since it was awarded the 2022 World cup finals. Many are still working on building sites in potentially life-threatening heat and humidity. Ultimately, the Government of Qatar are responsible for the human rights abuses occurring there. That is what Amnesty International said in 2017. Qatar began implementing reforms to migrant workers’ rights to head off a potentially embarrassing inquiry by the International Labour Organisation before the 2022 World cup.

Following international criticism, Qatar agreed in 2014 to bring in reforms including a minimum wage and reform to the kafala system, about which we have heard a great deal this afternoon. I will not add to what has been said about that, but I draw Members’ attention to some of the abuses that workers have had to suffer. Contractors withhold workers’ passport and personal documents so they cannot leave the country. Workers need permission from their employer to leave Qatar. Workers are often housed in unsanitary camps, sleeping in small dormitory rooms, some with more than 20 people to a room—imagine that. Employers have refused permission for any form of inspection of those facilities. Many workers are paid less than £1 an hour. While Qatar may have a cheaper cost of living than the UK, it is not that much cheaper. We often hear that domestic violence is common in those conditions.

I am told that Qatar is spending $500 million a week on World cup-related infrastructure projects, including the construction or restoration of eight stadiums, hotels, transportation and other facilities. FIFA, the international football organisation, has stated that it

“seeks to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts”

in relation to World cup projects.

Many Members will know that in the past nine months there has been a blockade of Qatar by some of its neighbours: Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and, most importantly, Saudi Arabia. When I visited the country in February, I was told that that has acted as a catalyst to increase the pace and speed of reforms. Whether that is true or not, only time will tell.

In August 2017, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani, ratified Law No. 15 on service workers working in the home. It is the first law that grants labour protections for Qatar’s 175,000 domestic workers, and we must not forget them. In talking about construction, let us not forget domestic workers, who often receive far more abuse than even those on construction sites. Under the law, employers would not be allowed to withhold personal documents. However, migrant workers would continue to require permission to leave the country, as they would be required to notify their employer, and I guess permission could be withheld.

When I was in Qatar I had the privilege of meeting Ambassador Faisal bin Abdullah Al-Henzab, who is the director of the human rights department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He speaks extremely good English, having represented his country in many parts of the world including, most recently, Geneva. He told me that the International Labour Organisation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North pointed out, finished its inquiry in November 2017, in response to the Qatar Government’s expressed reform commitments and legislative actions. ILO director general, Guy Ryder, said:

“The ILO welcomes the commitment of Qatar to engage in substantive cooperation with the Organization for the promotion and protection of workers’ rights, and looks forward to the successful implementation of the cooperation programme over the next three years”.

The United Kingdom ambassador to Qatar in Doha, Ajay Sharma, confirmed that the pace of reform is speeding up, partly in response to the boycott and the crisis, as the Qataris call it. Of course, we warmly welcome that.

We believe that the labour reforms are a positive result of international pressure on Qatar, as many Members have pointed out, including the mover of this afternoon’s motion. Human Rights Watch called them

“a step in the right direction”,

but highlighted the fact that

“their implementation will be the decisive factor”.

The ILO report that I mentioned earlier is also a little vague. For example, it states that a minimum wage will be adopted by Qatar without stipulating when, what it will be, and how it will be enforced. Qatar remains unique among its peers in the Gulf for implementing the ILO recommendations, but as Amnesty International said, the ILO and the international community

“must continue to scrutinise Qatar’s record on migrant labour abuse”.

As has been said this afternoon, the reforms are warmly welcomed, but much more needs to be done. We will be watching, encouraging and—I hope—helping the Government of Qatar to implement those reforms so that they can lead the region. Perhaps other countries in the region will follow.

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I genuinely thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for securing today’s debate. On behalf of the entire House, I wish the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) a very happy birthday. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East is currently elsewhere on ministerial duties, so it is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

Working conditions in other countries obviously matter to us—not just for their own sake, but to give British workers employed in other countries confidence that they will be properly protected. The tragic death of Zachary Cox in Qatar last year has once again focused public attention on the working conditions there, particularly in the construction industry. May I, as I am sure we all do, extend sincere condolences once again to his family?

I would like to set out what the main concerns about labour conditions in Qatar have been, what steps the Qatari Government have been taking to address them, and what the UK Government have been doing to support reforms there. Public attention, as has been mentioned, was drawn to the working conditions in Qatar, and particularly the conditions endured by the mainly migrant workforce on construction sites, when Qatar won the competition to host the 2022 football World cup just over seven years ago. It would be wise of me to say nothing about my own enthusiasm for football or, if I were to be honest, lack of it.

In 2014, the International Labour Organisation raised a complaint against Qatar concerning the non-observance of the forced labour convention. As we have heard today, the ILO had particular concerns about the kafala, an Arabic term meaning, essentially, “sponsorship system”. The kafala gives responsibility for migrant workers’ visas and legal status to their sponsors in many Gulf countries. The practice has been widely criticised by human rights organisations because of concerns that it could leave workers open to exploitation. We believe that there are clear examples where that has definitely been the case. There have been reports that more than one million migrant workers in Qatar might be subject to kafala.

Following the ILO complaint, the Qatari Ministry of Labour committed to a number of reforms, including introducing laws to end the kafala. The Ministry also undertook to take other steps that go beyond the minimum required to address the ILO’s concerns. As well as changes to legislation to address the kafala system, the Ministry has made a number of specific commitments, which include addressing three main concerns. First, it has committed to improve health screening and access to healthcare for migrant workers. Secondly, it has committed to introduce a minimum wage. Thirdly, it has committed to establish a fund to help workers with their salaries in the event that an employer goes bankrupt.

In addition to those commitments, the Qataris have reformed the process for migrant workers leaving the country, and introduced an electronic wage payment scheme. They have also built new accommodation for the foreign labour force, and increased their health and safety inspection capability. Qatar has also introduced legislation to offer legal protection to domestic workers, and has made efforts to improve recruitment practices in workers’ countries of origin. That means that employers should in future hire only through independently monitored and licensed recruiting agents, and the Ministry of Labour must approve all contracts. That will help to avoid problems with the misrepresentation of contracts and salaries, and to end the high recruitment fees being charged by unscrupulous agents, as has happened previously.

Qatar has taken other practical steps to improve the situation for migrant workers. The supreme committee for delivery and legacy for the World cup has been working with a number of international companies and agencies to carry out regular audits and inspections of construction sites. It signed a memorandum of understanding with the Building and Wood Workers’ International union—the BWI—18 months ago, and has been conducting joint worksite inspections with the BWI, to assess standards for construction workers involved in all World cup projects. The committee is also inspecting the accommodation provided for the workers, to ensure that it is fit for them to live in.

The supreme committee and the BWI published their first report in January, which set out a number of observations and recommendations to improve safety standards further. Those recommendations include sharing health records between accommodation and work sites, improving standards in kitchen areas, and trying to prevent workplace injuries. It is clearly vital that all those recommendations are implemented as soon as possible, not least because the number of workers on World cup and associated infrastructure construction projects is likely to reach its peak of almost 2 million later this year.

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The programme that was on TV the other morning referred to Qatar’s having one of the highest levels of income per head in the whole of the Arab world. There really should not be any financial reasons for not doing all the work that the Minister has pointed out. Does he agree that, given the finance that they have available, they should just get the job done?

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As we are discussing today, we want to see high standards, fair pay, and all the guarantees around those two structures, to ensure that people are not exploited and cheated, which appears to have been the case on a number of occasions in the past.

Qatar’s efforts to improve the situation for its migrant workforce have recently been welcomed by the ILO, Human Rights Watch and the International Trade Union Confederation. In fact, in November the ILO decided to close its complaint, in recognition of the progress being made by Qatar to address its concerns. Last October, Qatar and the ILO signed a technical co-operation agreement, which aims to bring Qatar’s labour laws in line with international standards. The agreement will last three years. During that time, an ILO office based in Doha will provide support and monitor progress on reforming labour rights and ending forced labour. That will include further work to improve the working and living conditions for construction workers, ensuring that workers have a voice through an improved grievance system, and tackling issues in recruitment. ILO staff are already working in Qatar ahead of the formal opening of the office in April.

The UK Government are committed to the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, so we welcome the commitments and efforts being made by Qatar. Modern slavery is a particular priority for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and she has discussed the issue in detail with His Highness the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

The Qataris have shown a willingness to improve workers’ human rights. Last September, Qatar endorsed the Prime Minister’s call to action at the UN General Assembly to end modern slavery. The UK’s close bilateral relationship with Qatar has allowed us not only to raise concerns about working conditions and human rights, but to offer our assistance and expertise. The UK’s recent experience of hosting the Olympics, the Commonwealth games and the rugby world cup means that we have the expertise to help Qatar stage a safe and successful World cup in 2022. That includes improving health and safety on construction sites, as well as designing world-class stadiums and providing British expertise to keep the stadiums cool. We will continue to work with Qatar on labour reform and other issues, such as supporting its 2030 national vision—its ambitious vision to transform and diversify its economy away from the hydrocarbons sector.

Later this month, the Minister for the Middle East will travel to Qatar for talks on strengthening our relationship and to discuss what more we can do to help implement the national vision. At the same time, our embassy in Doha will continue to urge the British business community in Qatar, as well as its contractors and subcontractors, to adhere to the toughest health and safety standards. Our embassy staff have seen at first hand the positive steps that have been taken by Qatar over the past year to improve construction safety standards as well as the wider situation for migrant workers in the country. We will continue to encourage those measures and to follow the significant progress made by the Qatari authorities.

Although a number of challenges remain, we are encouraged by Qatar’s clear commitment to improving the labour conditions of migrant workers. For our part, the UK firmly believes that prosperity and respect for human rights should go hand in hand. We welcome Qatar’s willingness to introduce reforms that will bring their laws into line with international standards. We will continue to work with Qatar to support progress and reform, to give all workers in Qatar confidence to know that their safety, their wellbeing, and their rights will be properly protected.

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I am still a relatively new Member and this is my first hour-long Westminster Hall debate. A few minutes ago, I had the moment that new Members often have, when I realised I would get the chance, and the obligation, to sum up. Happily, I keep good notes and I am light on my feet, so I suspect I will be able to do so briefly.

My previous two debates were on advice services in Nottingham and voter registration in Nottingham North. They were much more solo ventures than today’s debate, and it has been lovely to have some company. I was slightly thrown because I was expecting the Minister for the Middle East, but I was very excited to see the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) in his place as Minister, because he and I have spent quite a bit of time in the last few weeks on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill Committee. This gives me another chance to remind him of our enthusiasm for the passing of a Magnitsky-type amendment to that Bill on Report.

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I would draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the commitment made by the Prime Minister in a statement today to table such an amendment, and assure the House that I am working very closely with his party in the hope that we can have a cross-party agreement on that that will give a strong voice from the United Kingdom, particularly given the background of Salisbury.

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Order. I call Alex Norris, on the subject of the debate.

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I thank the Minister for that, but will return to topic.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) put it very aptly when he said that these migrant workers are not going to war but going to work. They are going to a building site and it should be held in that spirit. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for his leadership through the all-party parliamentary group. It is really important to recognise, as many Members have said, that things have got better because people have looked at this, have taken part and have gone and taken time to have difficult conversations. That is how things get better.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) is, like me, a strong trade unionist and an internationalist. He gave us some timely reminders of the challenge at home. I saw him speak last week at an event for his old union, so I am in no doubt that he will press the case strongly.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for his comprehensive speech. It was quite reassuring that our speeches fitted together, so I clearly was not too far off beam. It was really clear about the sort of pressure that we can bring as a country, how we can help raise standards and the impact that that might have in the broader region, which is, as I said earlier, a real prize.

I am grateful to the Minister for talking us through the Government’s position and the connection to modern-day slavery, which is an issue on which Members across the House hold strong opinions.

I appreciate the spirit in which we discussed the issue. I will confess that I was having a couple of beers with a couple of mates last night, watching the football. When I said I was having this debate, they said, “You just want to talk about football, don’t you, Alex?” I do love football—I seem to have got all the enthusiasm from those Members who do not, and combined it in me—but this is not actually about football. It is not about the World cup. That is an emblem of the issue, but it is about people, workers and being able to go to work with the expectation of getting fair pay, getting paid and being safe—something we would all want for ourselves, our friends and our family, and that we should want for everyone around the world.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered labour reforms in Qatar.

Sitting adjourned.