Qatar’s Migrant Labor Crisis

By Emiliano Salomón | emiliano.salomon@yale.edu

The World Cup draws millions of soccer fans every year. However, few are aware that the upcoming games in Qatar will take place in stadiums built by exploited migrant laborers. After winning the hosting privilege for the World Cup in 2022, Qatar - the tiny Arab country that boasts the world’s highest per-capita income - needed to find a way to quickly build nine new stadiums. Qatar is a country of only 313,000 citizens, with the majority of adults already having stable, well-paying jobs. So, labor contractors turned to poverty-stricken Southeast Asian countries like Nepal and Bangladesh to hire its workforce. The new hirees have entered Qatar’s kafala system.

The Kafala System

The kafala system is an immigrant labor sponsorship system used throughout the Arabian Peninsula, including Qatar. It ties migrant workers’ visas and legal status to their employer. Migrant workers—typically men—usually enter Qatar’s kafala system in the following way:

The Qatari business magnates responsible for the construction of the stadiums hire recruiters that travel to countries like Nepal and look for vulnerable, unemployed men in need of work. The recruiters lure in these men with the promise of making hundreds of U.S. dollars, an amount far higher than most domestic jobs pay. After the men are enticed with the promise of a well-paying job, they enter a process of recruitment that oftentimes forces them to pay hefty recruitment fees. In a study conducted by Amnesty International, it was found that many workers were charged fees ranging from $500 to $4,300. In some instances, the workers, borrowing loans to pay these expensive fees, fell into debilitating debt. There have also been reported cases of newly-hired workers who were forced to pay for their flight to Qatar on top of their recruitment fee, worsening their debt.

When the workers finally arrive in Qatar after paying their burdensome recruitment fees, they are taken to remote camps located far outside the city. The camps resemble prison yards, with workers having to share tiny, cramped rooms with eight to twelve other workers. The conditions in the living spaces are extremely unsanitary. As Jeremy Schaap, an ESPN reporter who visited a camp, describes, “There was an overpowering smell of human waste [in the housing camp].” Sharon Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, an organization dedicated to workers’ rights, says, “The cooking spaces are just absolutely unhygienic. They’re terrible, terrible places, often in fact with no clean water.” However, unsanitary living conditions are only one part of the multi-pronged housing camp injustice. While the laborers are in the housing camps, the employers strip them of their visas and passports, denying them the option of returning home. Without their documents, the migrant laborers are completely bound to their employers.

In addition to horrible living condition, laborers are forced to endure dangerous working conditions. Because Qatar has a desert climate, the men labor under the hot sun for hours on end, often being denied breaks and adequate hydration. According to The Independent, it is not uncommon for workers to pass out from the heat. Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that hundreds have died at the construction site, with about 74 percent of deaths being attributed to “unexplained causes.” When the Qatari government commissioned DLA Piper, an international law firm, to conduct a report investigating the living conditions of the migrant workers in 2014, it was found that a high number of deaths were attributed to causes like “cardiac arrest,” terms that Human Rights Watch described as vague, at best. The report suggested that the government should perform autopsies and post-mortems on workers who died at the construction sites to better understand why exactly they are dying. Human Rights Watch, however, found that the government has failed to do so.

After work, when workers try to collect their pay, many are left empty-handed or given far less than what they were promised. Although this is a clear breach of their contract, the workers cannot fight for their promised wage because they are denied the basic legal rights of citizenship. Furthermore, while most countries have unions and systems in place that would prevent contract breaches from arising, Qatar has outlawed labor unions, making it illegal for even non-migrant laborers to unionize and fight for their promised pay.

Attempts at Remedying and Ending the Kafala System

In 2014, the Qatari government caved to international pressure and promised major reforms to its kafala system. According to The Guardian, the Qatari government put forth regulations that would make it easier for migrants to return to their home country. However, Amnesty International found that these reforms fell short and are better characterized as a “change of name rather than a reform to the system.”

At the beginning of 2018, the Qatari government struck a deal with the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Labor Organization, a United Nations group also committed to workers’ rights, to end the kafala system. In March 2018, the Qatari government announced that they would force employers to pay back the recruitment fees to their workers; labor contractors were also no longer allowed to charge recruitment fees. It is estimated that by 2019, 30,000 workers will have been paid back. According to the Global Construction Review, prior to these reforms, the only way that workers could have been reimbursed was by showing a receipt or proof of payment, which workers seldom had. Continuing the effort to expand the rights of migrant laborers, in September 2018, the Qatari government signed a deal that would allow 1.6 million migrant workers to return home without requiring the consent of their employers. Although these reforms are steps in the right direction to ending the kafala system, many still remain skeptical about their effectiveness. For example, Amnesty International has expressed its frustration with the slow implementation and lax enforcement of the new laws.

While the reform to the kafala system marks a major milestone in granting migrant laborers greater rights, many problems still remain unaddressed. Some of those issues include nonexistent unionizing rights, the inability of workers to sue an employer who pays less than the promised salary, and loopholes in the reforms that allow employers to prevent workers who want to return home from doing so.

To force Qatar to face and remedy the totality of its injustice, some have suggested pushing FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) to strip the rich oil country of its hosting privileges. Another possible solution is for soccer fans to boycott the World Cup entirely. Doing so would show where the world’s heart and mind stands on this issue. Hopefully, on the side of the migrant laborers.