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Kick off in Qatar: Who is being overshadowed?

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By Menka Sandrasagren, Administration Assistant at Minority Rights Group International 

This weekend, 60,000 football fans will watch Qatar play Ecuador in the first game of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Constructing the seven new stadiums, airport, roads, public transport systems, hotels and even the new city required to welcome the world to the country has cost  over $200 billion. The abundant capital pumped into the project has not prevented a significant human cost; migrant labourers from South Asia and Africa have suffered exploitation, insecure and unsafe working conditions, months of unpaid salaries, obstacles to changing jobs and in some cases, deaths. 

The lives of at least 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have reportedly been lost to World Cup construction projects between 2010 and 2020. This death toll is likely to be significantly higher, as nationals from other countries were not counted. Though these systemic rights violations have not gone without international outcry, reforms have been minimal. As the first game kicks off and more than a decade of construction comes to an end, ‘what happens after the 2022 World Cup, when all eyes are no longer on Qatar and the plight of its migrant workers?’ 

Until recently, labourers have travelled to Qatar under the kafala system, a sponsorship system which legally binds workers to their employers. Under kafala, a worker’s residency permit is tied to their employer and passports are routinely confiscated, which prevents them from leaving the country or even simply changing jobs without permission. Illegal recruitment fees put workers in debt to their employer before work even starts. Exploited, but deprived of the protection of labour laws, workers cannot unionize or pursue other avenues to justice. This is widely considered to amount to modern slavery. 

Though reforms have been passed to dismantle the kafala system, exploitation and unsafe conditions persist. Around 100 migrant workers had, amongst other violations, been deprived of their pay for up to 7 months by the construction firm Qatar Meta Coats (QMC). One said: ‘every day we are asking but they are telling us “we are having a shortage of money”. They tell us they are trying their best. “At the end of this week”, they tell us.’ QMC reportedly failed to renew expired residency permits, limiting its workers’ access to healthcare and making them vulnerable to arrest and deportation. The workers further stated that QMC prevented them from finding other, potentially better, employment when it refused to grant them the ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) required by kafala law to allow them to switch jobs.  

Employers under the kafala system were also in charge of housing their employees in Qatar. This has meant that many live in horrific conditions with no way out. Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan migrant worker turned activist described his accommodation as ‘a slum-like district characterized by congested “residences”, filth, dust, deplorable roads, litter and generally unsanitary surroundings. This is where Qatar hides its migrant workers, away from the general population, as if we were a blight, an eyesore.’ 

Faced with international pressure, Qatar began implementing reforms to its sponsorship system in 2017: setting up a new labour dispute committee, ending the ‘exit permit’ requirement, ending NOC requirements and introducing a minimum wage. Qatar stated that it would end the kafala system in 2020. But with implementation and enforcement of these reforms weak, trade unions still outlawed, and no inquiry into the deaths so far, thousands of migrant workers remain at the mercy of their employers. Bidali reports that as of 2021, workers are still not able to freely change jobs despite promises to the contrary. 

Abuses like these speak to wider problems in the Gulf. The kafala system has been used across the region and lives on in various states of reform. With low domestic labour capacities, Gulf state economies depend heavily upon millions of migrant workers to realize the multimillion-dollar megaprojects that are stimulating the region’s rapid development. In Saudi Arabia, building the $500 billion NEOM megacity has reportedly resulted in members of the indigenous Huwaitat tribe being forcibly evicted, the detention of a prominent Huwaitat activist and thirteen community members, as well as a propaganda effort against them. While NEOM claims to be ‘a vision of what a new future might look like’, the project risks repeating a disregard for human rights – a recurrent feature of the Gulf’s construction industry at large. 

Qatar’s treatment of its migrant workforce has caused activists and football fans the world over to call for a boycott of this year’s World Cup. But there are concerns that a boycott would simply allow the state and its companies to shy further from their responsibilities to their workers; Malcolm Bidali claims that a boycott ‘will be tantamount to open season on migrant workers and will most certainly undo all the progress on their welfare made so far.’ While major sporting events like the World Cup are meant to spotlight a country’s culture and contribution to sport, widespread human rights violations are brushed under the carpet, even legitimised, in service of development. With or without a boycott, the hard-won spotlight on Qatar’s migrant workers must not be allowed to fade. 

More advocacy is needed to reform labour laws in Qatar and across the region, making sure that monitoring on the implementation of reforms is central to the protection of migrant workers. Governments, along with the globalised web of investors, contractors, and subcontractors that make up the Gulf region’s construction industry, must be held accountable for the failures of the last decade. Workers who have suffered must be compensated. With the Asian Winter Games set to be held in NEOM in 2029, the international community has a chance to ensure that migrant and minority rights are not swept aside in the race to complete the Gulf’s next megaproject.  

Photo: In the old part of the city, migrant workers spend time in the yard of their apartments in their free time. Credit: Shadow of light/Shutterstock.

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