Qatar’s Migrant Workers’ Rights a Cause for Great Concern in the Face of the 2022 World Cup

In 2010, Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup that has since fielded corruption allegations, into which investigations are still ongoing. A leading question surfacing after the announcement, among other environmental and climate concerns, revolved around the nation’s lack of necessary infrastructure to host such a high-profile, global event that many of the other candidates already possess. As Qatar erects the massive infrastructure required for the World Cup, migrant labor has become the backbone of the mass construction and a cause for concern.

Qatar, like many Gulf Coast nations, has made use of the kafala system – a system for sponsorship of migrant workers – which lends itself to the exploitation of migrant workers and the violation of fundamental human rights. While the country announced in late 2017 that it would be putting an end to the use of the kafala system, its track record of migrant workers’ rights abuses has left room for skepticism from international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International. Qatar has, among other Gulf nations, long skirted international labor requirements. That nation’s labor force is nearly ninety-five percent migrant labor, with about 800,000 migrants employed in construction where abuses and dangerous conditions are commonplace.

The reality of conditions faced by migrant workers, who are predominantly from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, falls far below international labor standards. According to Amnesty International, one of many major grievances stems from recruitment fees, ranging from US $500 to US $4,300, which migrants pay in order to begin working. Fees at such a high cost become so expensive that many migrant workers incur debt just to obtain contracts from their employers. Companies have further violated many workers by grossly underpaying salaries that were originally negotiated. In one instance, a worker reported a promised monthly salary of $300 from their employer, only to be paid $190 per month upon starting. Even more egregious is the fact that these salaries are, in some cases, paid out months late, leaving workers struggling for food, unable to make payments on loans for recruitment fees, and greatly incapacitated from sending money home to their families. Furthermore, the conditions on the work sites are needlessly dangerous – recently, a British worker died on the stadium construction site due to faulty equipment.

Dangerous working conditions and wage denial are not the only violations of rights surrounding the 2022 World Cup. Migrant workers face further violation of their rights when they return to their residences. Amnesty found that workers’ camps were heavily overcrowded and in violation of both Qatari law and FIFA’s Workers’ Welfare Standards. Because some employers fail to provide or renew residence permits, workers are left vulnerable to imprisonment by or fines from Qatari law enforcement, instilling fear in any prospect of leaving work sites and camps. Even if workers are able to leave their work sites, the likelihood that they would be able to leave Qatar is slim. Passport dispossession at the hands of employers is not an uncommon practice in Qatari work camps for migrant labor. Some companies also require that their workers receive approval for “exit permits” if they want to leave the country – the requests for which are purportedly largely denied. As of now, migrant workers are in no position to challenge their current situations. Complaints are largely ignored or met with outright refusal or threats from employers. In 2015 the International Labour Organization’s committee of experts designated the dire circumstances faced by these migrant workers, and others exploited in the kafala system as amounting to forced labor, and essentially slavery.

Whether or not the situation will soon change remains to be seen. Qatar signed two international treaties in June, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The ICCPR requires the right to freedom of movement, while the ICESCR requires the right to just and safe working conditions, fair wages, paid holidays and reasonable limitation of working hours. In addition, in October of last year, the International Trade Union Confederation announced Qatar’s agreement to extensive reforms of the current kafala system. Qatar promised to institute a nondiscriminatory minimum wage, to improve payment of wages, to end document confiscation, to enhance labor inspections and occupational safety, to refine the contractual system to improve labor recruitment procedures, and to step up efforts to prevent forced labor.

These combined measures would be a massive step in a country where migrants make up most of the labor force, but the announcements give little detail on how laws will be amended, how the changes will be carried out, or the time frame for their implementation. Article 116 of Qatar’s Labor Laws still leaves stipulations that infringe upon the rights of migrant workers under the ICESCR, limiting them from forming workers’ associations or labor unions. With the end of 2018 World Cup in Russia, the Qatari delegation announced mass changes for 2022, continuing to neglect addressing the abuses towards migrant workers surrounding the event. Rather than focusing on plans to ameliorate abuses faced by migrant workers, the delegation instead announced its intent to address issues of crowd flow. Unfortunately, given its track record of neglecting rights abuses for migrant laborers and continued stipulations surrounding reform, it seems as though Qatar is much less willing to actually show a commitment to these obligations in actions than it is to simply pay lip service.

On the horizon, however, there may be substantial changes regarding the enforcement of international labor standards, particularly as it pertains to global sporting events. A demonstrated effort by the international community towards increased commitment to human rights standards for events like the World Cup has resulted in the new Center for Sport and Human Rights. The Institute for Human Rights and Business established the Center in Geneva, aiming to stop human rights violations surrounding global-scale sporting events through accountability mechanisms and victim justice and support systems. While this mechanism can serve a valuable role in the lead up to 2022, the question of Qatar’s implementation of real reform for migrant workers’ rights remains and calls for the watchful eye of the international community.

Rebecca Leussing is an Advocacy Intern with ADHRB.