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Finance & Innovation

Wage rights improve in Qatar and Burma. But is it enough?

Flickr: Habeeb Mohammed Abu-Futtaim

I’ve had my share of menial jobs--dishwasher, cashier, shelf-stocker, janitor and others.

But I was always paid fairly (at least for a young person who didn’t have any major bills yet) and the hours weren’t soul-sucking. The work even went by fast--well, most of the time.

Billions of people around the world, many of whom must support families, cannot say the same. They work long, hard hours and earn hardly anything by international standards.

Many of these jobs are in manufacturing or construction and there’s a lurid disparity between labor input and material output.

Take the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Input: thousands of bussed-in foreign laborers working high-risk jobs with little protection who often die (literally thousands), make next to nothing and sometimes do not even receive pay on time.

Laborers in QatarImage: Flickr: Richard Messenger

Output: a majestic array of world-class buildings fit to house the world’s best athletes.  

Olympic parkImage: Flickr: slimmer_jimmer

Take the garment factories in parts of Asia.

Input: millions of women hunched over machines in cramped, poorly ventilated rooms working 12 or more hours a day, churning out dresses,vests and underwear, making a US dollar or two a day.

Garment factory in Sri LankaImage: Flickr: ILO in Asia and the Pacific

Output: endless aisles of meticulously organized, affordable clothes in your favorite store.

MallImage: Flickr: Daniel Hoherd

Activists around the world have tried to campaign on behalf of these workers with very little success.

Recently, two minor victories were achieved.

In Qatar, the government enacted a law that punishes any employer that does not pay laborers on time. The employers have to deposit the money into a bank account and the bank has to transfer the money to the worker’s preference.

While this does not address the matter of wage fairness, it is a step in the right direction, as delays in wage paying has been a major area of abuse. It will relieve workers of the stress of having to implore their bosses for paychecks so that they can feed their family for once.

A 2013 report found that around a fifth of migrant workers were frequently unpaid in Qatar.

Another issue that remains unaddressed is the “kafala system,” which requires migrant workers to get visa sponsorship through employers. This allows employers to hold the threat of deportation over the heads of employees if they become disruptive (read: demand fair conditions).

The second minor victory is In Burma, where the minimum wage was just raised. Now a month of work (6 day work weeks, who knows how many hours) will fetch workers no less than $67 USD.


Burma wants to remain “competitive,” after all. In Vietnam and Cambodia, monthly minimum wages are between $90 and $128.

In Burma and elsewhere, workers are routinely cheated out of pay and work in miserable conditions. This makes meeting basic demands like food, healthcare and shelter is hard.

It is expected that daily quotas will be raised by factory owners in response to the minimum wage increase, and that workers will be forced to work longer hours as a result. Who knows if they’ll even be paid for those hours.

The pace of labor reform around the world is glacial. People need reform now, not in 5 or 10 or 20 years time.

“We’re working on it,” is not a satisfactory answer. For a worker who needs money to buy rice for her kids this evening after her shift, a promise that wages will improve in a few years means absolutely nothing.

Every person deserves to live a life without constant  suffering. They also shouldn’t have to work agonizing hours to achieve such a life.

If you think that poverty has no place in a world of such abundance, then go to TAKE ACTION NOW and call on world leaders to make strong commitments to the Global Goals.

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