Qatar is set to preside over a key global labour meeting from Monday in a move that could trounce noises about its human rights record, and give it the much-needed publicity.
Gilbert F. Houngbo, Director-General of the International Labour Organization indicated to labour unions that Qatar will, by tradition, be taking over the presidency 111th Session of the International Labour Conference, which kicks off in Geneva, Switzerland on Monday and runs until June 16.
“It is the very frequent practice that the Government be Vice-President of the Conference in one year then becomes the President of the Conference in the following year,” the ILO boss wrote to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) last month. The ITUC represents some 200 global labour unions including those from Africa.
“Such is the case on this occasion, since at the II0th Session of the International Labour Conference (2022) the Government of Qatar was elected unanimously as a Vice-President.”
The ILO has defended the procedure as being in full compliance with relevant standing orders of the conference which allow government delegations, known as Government group, to preside over annual conferences in a rotational format.
Usually, the president will have to be confirmed by delegates but Qatar was the only nominee to preside over the meet.
Yet ahead of the International Labour Conference due from June 5-16 next week, Doha had been in the eyes of controversy, especially among European Union authorities over the Gulf country’s supposed violations of workers’ rights, especially ahead of the FIFA World Cup last year.
And the ITUC had written to the ILO raising concerns about Qatar’s own record and warned that the global labour body might soil its reputation unless those concerns are addressed.
According to the ITUC letter of May 10, Qatar had had “insufficiently effective” labour reforms and “allegations that attempts have been made to influence decision-makers in the European Union in a highly inappropriate manner.” None of the Qatar officials in the upcoming delegation has been publicly accused or prosecuted for bribery, however.
Taking over this meet could be a useful role for a country that recently hosted the FIFA World Cup in spite of allegations of labour rights violations. So far, Doha as before the World Cup, has been backed by labour unions in Africa and Asia, indicating political connotations.
One official, a senior African trade unionist who is a delegate, said Qatar is being victimised by the West. He declined to be named, as he didn’t want to publicly contradict the umbrella body that had already written to the ILO. Last year, the African labour unions defended Qatar’s rights, following a tour of stadia there.
“Qatar will preside over the conference. That is done. We will not go into something that has never been done before. Nobody has asked us for our views and we are fully behind Qatar,” the official said on Friday.
The International Labour Conference is the flagship annual meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, where labour policies for the International Labour Organization and its members are made.
Qatar has fronted Dr Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, the Qatari Minister of Labour to preside over the International Labour Conference. He is a former chairman of the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), one that had been working with the ILO on local reforms regarding immigrant workers.
In response to concerns raised by the Luc Tringale, the acting General Secretary of the ITUC, the ILO said it understands Qatar needs to do more on labour reforms, but said there has been some progress.
It cited progress reforms pledged by Qatar since 2017 including the ratification and effective implementation of relevant ILO Conventions, the expansion of the social protection system, the level of minimum wages and the promotion of social dialogue, among other vital issues.
“The ILO's own assessment at this stage is that while there has been undeniable progress, there remains much to be done.
“Please rest assured that these and other critical issues have been raised consistently by me and by my senior staff over the past several months, including during the ongoing ILO mission to Qatar that is discussing a possible third phase of the joint ILO/Qatar technical cooperation programme.”
As is tradition, the presidency of the conference goes to the governments. The ILO allows each member State to be represented by a delegation consisting of two government delegates, an employer delegate, a worker delegate, and their respective advisers.
Each of the delegates has a vote independent of the other, making the ILO a unique UN body where both governments and representatives of labour bodies hold sway and can sometimes vote against one another.
Last year, for example, Kenya’s Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) endorsed Houngbo’s candidature while the Federation of Kenya Employers voted for a different candidate.
“Often called an international parliament of labour, the Conference establishes and adopts international labour standards and is a forum for discussion of key social and labour questions. It also adopts the Organization's budget and elects the Governing Body,” an ILO bulletin says of the meeting.
The President of the Conference is deputised by three vice presidents - one from the workers, one from the employers and one from the government.