Sunday, April 14, 2013

Issues Surrounding Qataris and Employment

There was an article a while ago on Dohanews about statements a Labour Ministry official said to an Arabic newspaper. Amongst the criticisms from the official was that companies were not following the employment law and setting aside at least 20% of jobs for Qatari nationals (which was a bit surprising, I was aware that there was a minimum requirement for having Qatari staff but for some reason I thought it was around 10%).

Shortly after that there was news from other countries in the Gulf. Kuwait announced it was going to reduce the number of ex-pat visas by 100,000 a year for the next 10 years, and Saudi Arabia is moving to a system (called “Nitaqat”) where companies that do not meet minimum requirements for employing Saudis will face penalties such as fines or not having any new ex-pat visas issued.

Not surprisingly the articles generated a lot of discussion and it got me thinking about the overall issues surrounding hiring Qataris and the views of ex-pats in hiring Qataris.

I've worked with many Qataris, and trained many Qataris, and feel that when it comes to public discussion of Qataris in the workforce a lot of rhetoric and finger-pointing seems to occur, which takes away from critically looking at the issue.

A common remark made by foreigners is around the issue of how Qataris would never be waiters, construction laborers, etc. I don't feel this is a valid point. I will go out on a limb and say that the Qatari Government’s intention for protectionist employment laws is for its citizens to acquire meaningful, well-paid employment, not that they will be waiters or taxi drivers. Does anyone honestly think the Labour Ministry will be calling Karwa and asking why 20% of their drivers are not Qatari? Or why a mall isn't employing Qataris to clean tables at the food court? Of course not.

The Government spends a lot of money providing its citizens with free or heavily-subsidized education. It's not doing this so that Qataris can go on to be car-washers. It does this in the hopes that they will be able to use that education to find gainful employment, something that would allow a Qatari to earn enough money to provide a decent life for themselves and their family. I don't see anything wrong with that vision. Qatari parents have expectations that their children will do more with their lives than become store clerks or landscapers. They are fortunate to be citizens of a country where that is a more-than-reasonable expectation, in many parts of the world parents are grateful if their children manage to have a steady job that keeps them out of poverty.

Despite the occasional comment on the Internet along the lines of “all foreigners should go home” I can't imagine that people who say such remarks meant every foreigner. Qataris know full well that foreigners are needed to do most of the blue-collar and service-sector work. They are not going to do it themselves nor does the Government expect them to. Qataris make up around 15% of the country’s population and have accepted that they will be a minority in their country. No, I think this malevolence is directed at the foreigners who are in middle or senior positions and making good money, leaving Qataris to ask why hasn't a Qatari been hired in that position. Unfortunately such inflamed Internet postings rarely go on to analyze why, perhaps, a foreigner instead of a Qatari is in that position.

Which brings up a criticism commonly thrown about – that Qataris/Saudis/Kuwaitis/[insert Arab nationality] are not hard workers, don't want to work long hours, etc. In my experience this stereotype is not entirely deserved. I have met Qataris who have a good work ethic, come in on time, have worked overtime when needed, and have worked jobs that are “9 to 5”. I sometimes think there is an element of confirmation bias in the stereotype, maybe foreigners see lots of Qataris kicking back and having coffee with their friends at the malls during the workday, or they met an ambivalent Qatari worker at a Government office, and project that to the populace as a whole. The Qataris who are actually working hard won't usually be seen or noticed in those circumstances.

With that said I will state I have also seen Qataris who do fit the stereotype: come in late, appear to put minimal effort to their work, take long breaks or leave early. And while I have heard stories of young Qataris coming into an interview expecting to be senior management even though they don't have appropriate qualifications I have not experienced that myself. Qataris with a poor work ethic do their countrymen no favours because of the negative impression they give to others. And negative impressions spread faster and are more remembered than positive ones.

I suppose I just want to say that the work ethic for Qataris runs the whole range, from the hard-working to the hardly-working so, yes, there are Qataris who could work at that managerial job just as hard as the ex-pat. They do exist. So why does there seem many who are ambivalent about their jobs? I don't know for sure but I'll get back to that point a bit later.

One commentator wondered why there is this issue of not hiring enough Qataris if the private businesses are owned by Qataris (by law a minimum of 51% of a business should be owned by Qataris, though there are some exceptions). Firstly -- and this section is entirely speculation on my part -- in some of these businesses the Qatari does not have an active role in running it, he is the owner who gets his share of the profits but leaves it to the people running the business to handle hiring. Secondly, I assume it's in part because the difference in wages is an extra expense impacting the profits of the owner. If you would have to pay QAR 25,000 a month for a Qatari for a job that you can pay an expat QAR 15,000 it becomes big money over time, the owner is looking at a difference of QAR 120,000 a year (~US$33,000). If you had 25 staff you’d need five Qataris, which in my example would be an extra $165,000 in wages a year. A Qatari business owner can do the math. The difference in salaries could be a significant factor in why private businesses would be reluctant to hire Qataris.

It could also be an issue of the strict employment laws here in Qatar for ex-pats. For example, in most sectors an employee cannot change jobs without a “no objection letter” from his previous employer. If a person wants to leave his current employment and cannot acquire the letter from his employer then he has to leave Qatar. This of course does not apply to Qataris who are free to switch jobs. This creates an incentive for an employer to hire ex-pats as there is some security that the employee will not leave your company for another one.

As for the Government, it also finds itself in a bit of a bind. By providing quality employment for its citizens the Government has provided thousands of jobs in the various Ministries, with good wages, working hours and benefits. This has set the bar of expectation for Qataris looking for work. Private-sector jobs have to compete with that, which is not easy. It would be hard for a Qatari to stay motivated to start a 9-to-5 job with four weeks vacation if they knew that their sibling/cousin/friend is working for the Government for the same money (maybe even more money), working 7-2, and receiving more vacation.

Sometimes the best intentions can have unintended consequences, by trying to help its citizens by providing good Government jobs the Government has had an impact on the employment of citizens in the private sector.

I sometimes wonder how many Qataris have entered the workforce ambitious and with drive, only to find they are in a Government job where they are shuffling some paper back and forth, and realize there isn’t much career advancement barring retirement of senior people, yet if they leave they will probably find a lower paying job with more hours and far less benefits (like the very generous Government pension). They may find themselves stuck, perhaps they strive to do more but are then risking the secure job they have. I wonder if many Qataris in such a situation eventually become disheartened, leading to ambivalence about their job or their performance. It's not unique to Qatar, I think this happens to civil servants in the West as well. You want to go to another job but the risk can be too great. In the West this can be offset by the private sector offering better money and benefits, in Qatar I don't know how easy that is for the private sector, especially if they can hire an ex-pat for less.

So what is the solution for Qatar’s job issues? Well, I'm not sure what would be the best way to deal with it, but I would like to note how things were handled in my previous job, also in a small country with a resident population who were worried about jobs – Bermuda.

Bermuda is a very small island, much smaller than even Bahrain, and of the approximately 60,000 people living on the island around 50,000 are Bermudian. This is not a country where if you can't find a job you can move to another city to search for a job there. There are no other cities. If a Bermudian can't find a job, they're pretty much stuck, so the Government has a strong incentive to find employment for Bermudians.

So in Bermuda all vacant jobs have to be posted in the newspaper for, I think, a minimum of 3 days. This means in the jobs section of the paper you see all sorts of jobs listed, ranging from minimum wage positions all the way up to management of billion-dollar companies.

If a qualified Bermudian or spouse of a Bermudian applies then they must receive the job. Qualified being the key word here. A company is not forced to take just anyone who applies.

Now my understanding was if a Bermudian applied and did not get the job, and it was given to a foreigner, they could contact the Immigration Ministry who will then investigate. At least that was what I was told, some Bermudians have a different view of that process but I think it would be a great thing if it worked well.

Also, my understanding was businesses tended to be questioned by the Government if you appear to hire a lot of foreigners and aren’t training Bermudians to replace them. It is easier to get a work visa for a foreigner if you can show the Government that you are training Bermudians.

It’s not a perfect system (see the article a couple of paragraphs above) and there are ways for an unscrupulous company to get around it, for example by inflating the requirements to ensure no Bermudian could qualify for the position, but at least the Government is trying to secure jobs for its citizens.

While training citizens is also a step in the right direction there is the issue, in both Qatar and Bermuda, that foreigners do have an incentive to keep their well-paying jobs. This means they might not put in a full effort to train Qataris to replace them thus keep their jobs secure. I’m not saying this is always how it works, many ex-pats plan to be here for only a few years anyway so would not be concerned about being replaced by Qatari, but you have to admit the potential for a conflict-of-interest exists.

But what to do about it? It's likely there are not enough Qataris in senior HR positions to oversee training. Then again I don't think there could possibly be enough experienced Qatari HR staff to oversee every company in the country. Would initiatives like what is done in Bermuda work? Hard to say, it would certainly have to be tailored in some way -- you don't want the newspaper filled with hundreds of ads for waiters, laborers, or other positions that Qataris would not be interested in. But what would be the criteria for job ads? Above a certain salary? Above a certain level of hierarchy in the company? These are issues that the Government would need to look at.

What about the proposed Saudi method? Qatar is not Saudi Arabia and there are different factors at play -- Saudi Arabia has a much bigger percentage of citizens compared to the ex-pat population so employment for Saudi citizens must be aimed at positions that are lower-level than the expectations Qatar has for Qatari citizens. It wouldn't work to arbitrarily penalize a company for not meeting the Qatarization percentage, many companies in the construction, transport or industrial sectors may have thousands of low-level jobs so it would just not be practical to demand 20% of the staff be Qatari (and as I’ve said above I don't think it's the Government's intention for its citizens to be working in such jobs).

The Government is finding itself in a tough situation. It wants to help its people so provides an abundance of Government jobs but by doing so it makes it difficult for the private sector to compete, and because of the over-employment in Government many of those who work for Government are probably in jobs that are not very meaningful but they can’t risk losing the benefits the Government provides by leaving their job. It tries to create laws to help its citizens to find employment in the private sector but they those laws don’t appear to adequately tackle the incentives for employers to hire ex-pats instead. A bolder plan is needed, one more complex and better tailored to address the issues.

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