Labour migration is a daily reality for millions of people around the world, and yet rarely the subject of critical debate on the Left, which usually finds itself defending the right to migration against right-wing opponents. But migration is not only about realizing unfulfilled individual potential or creating more enriching, multicultural societies — for many of the people who are forced to move abroad to perform backbreaking labour for meagre wages, it is an undignified, inhumane manifestation of capitalist “freedom” they would rather do without.
Binda Pandey is a Nepalese politician who served as an alternate member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO) from 2011 to 2017, where she was involved in negotiations with the Qatari government on behalf of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT). As a representative of the Communist Party of Nepal–Unified Marxist-Leninists, she was also previously part of the first Constituent Assembly in Nepal.
In 2017, the International Labour Organization (ILO) stated that there were 164 million labour migrants worldwide, meaning that labour migrants account for roughly 59 percent of all migrants. Almost half of them (40.8 percent) work in the Arab states, while the rest are scattered across North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia. As global supply chains expand and mobility becomes more affordable, migration has increased, along with an increasingly harsh border regime in the countries of the Global North in particular. Organizing these workers proves particularly difficult, not only because trade unions are often repressed in the destination countries, but also because the very conditions of migration make it more difficult to bring workers together.
Over the last few years, reports of migrant labourers working in slave-like conditions while building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar prompted growing attention to the problem, not only among trade unionists but also among the broader public. Now, with the games underway, it is vital to keep the public’s attention focused on their plight and raise awareness of the dark side of migration, both during and after the World Cup.
Raphael Molter recently sat down with Nepalese trade unionist Binda Pandey, who has worked with migrant labourers in Qatar for years, about the challenges the labour movement faces in improving these workers’ conditions and what labour migration means for the countries migrants come from.
You served on the Governing Body of the ILO (ILO-GB) for almost ten years, from 2011 to 2021, as a representative for the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Union (GEFONT). How did you come into contact with the issue of labour migration and Qatar?
GEFONT is one of the trade unions organizing migrant workers in the destination country under the name of GEFONT Support Group (GSG), while also supporting migrant workers from the country of origin as well. GSG began working in different countries in 1995, and was later established as a community organization in Qatar 2011. I had been working on these issues since the beginning, and got in touch with Qatar GSG.
When I was representing workers in the ILO Governing Body, I would extend my trips via Doha to drop in for few days, meeting with migrant workers and getting to know their situation and raising the issue in ILO meetings.
How would do you evaluate the progress in labour law reforms that Qatar is trying to sell to the public and the media?
You might be aware that the International Trade Union Confederation and the Building and Wood Workers’ Federation filed a case with the ILO demanding the abolition of the kafala system in Qatar back in 2011. Actually, FIFA’s decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was taken as an opportunity to raise our voices in favour of migrant workers’ right. Based on the recommendation adopted by the ILO-GB, the Qatari government started to change legal provisions and asked their companies to enforce them.
Some of the provisions have been implemented, such as a banking system of payment, the end of “No Objection Certificates” (NOC) as a requirement to leave Qatar, abolishing passport confiscation, training of labour inspectors to improve working conditions, expanding dispute handling mechanisms, and more — especially by big companies. That was promoted by the media, and the public are aware about that as well. But especially in small- and medium-sized companies, problems remain unresolved.
What role do both the ILO and other trade unions in Qatar have to play — do they focus more on pressuring the Qatari leadership or supporting the emerging migrant self-organization attempts?
I think both are important. Qatar’s government agreed to establish a joint committee of management and workers’ representatives to solve disputes as the starting point for establishing trade unions. But, as far as I know, less than 50 companies have actually done so, while thousands of companies are employing migrant workers.
Secondly, no systematic information is available about the impact of the joint committee on workers’ lives and working conditions. That is why it is important to monitor the work and impact as well to strengthen the capacity of workers and intervene with the Qatari leadership to accelerate that process.
Qatar is home to more than 2 million people who came to the Arabian Peninsula as labour migrants and have to live — and, above all, work — there with few rights. How does their situation compare to global standards?
The Qatari livelihood and economy is depending on migrant workers, without whom they cannot survive. That is the reality. That means it is not only the people from labour-sending countries who need employment, but that it is necessary for Qatar to hire migrant workers.
The vast majority of workers there face deprivation of basic human and workers’ rights. That needs to change. Migrant workers should have access to justice easily when facing any kind of violation of basic rights and legal provisions.
What influence does the phenomenon of labour migration have on the countries of origin, such as Nepal, when you look at the labour market there and the development of the economy?
Remittance is one of the economic pillars of the country. More than 50 percent of households depend on remittances. On the other hand, with so much of our productive labour force leaving the country, it means our agricultural economy is being dismantled. The modern way of life is accelerating, but the means of production have diminished. The long-term impact will be economic crisis if the state cannot intervene with a reliable policy and programme in time.
Can you identify instruments that developing countries can use to stop the bloodletting of young, employable people — or is out-migration a necessary part of the development process?
Migration is an emerging phenomena of today’s world, which cannot be stopped by choice. But we can and should intervene to stop compelled migration, which is happening mostly in countries with poor economies and a lack of employment prospects.
To change the phenomena of compelled migration, states should identify the push factors and respond to them effectively. For that purpose, good governance is part of an effective system. Decent work should be respected and all kinds of job should be dignified. The working class’s morale should be boosted.
You are also a member of the Nepalese parliament, and your party, the Communist Party of Nepal–Unified Marxists-Leninists (CPN–UML), leads a left-wing government. How do you see your task and what measures have you already taken to combat labour migration?
The CPN-UML was in government for a few years, from 2018 until mid-2021, after the first election under the new constitution. It had just started to set up some policies and programmes respecting workers’ issues. For instance, it declared a contributory social security system, started small loans to migrant returnees as seed money to start businesses, and established a compulsory memorandum of understanding between two governments to protect fundamental workers’ rights.
Some provisions of legislation were changed in favour of migrant workers’ rights, but the government has changed in the meantime. Afterward, some of the initiatives were slowed down and delayed. Now we are waiting for the next election on 20 November. Many things will be decided by the results.