Qatar's dependence on foreign workers is expected to intensify over the coming decade as it steps up its preparations to host the World Cup in 2022. Migrant workers already dominate Qatar's labor force, comprising 94 percent of all workers and 86 percent of the country's total population of nearly 2 million — the world's highest ratio of migrants to citizens. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) estimates that around 500,000 to 1 million additional foreign construction workers will be required to help build an estimated US$220 billion worth of hotels, stadiums, other facilities, and infrastructure by 2022.
With the international spotlight shining brightly on Qatar's preparation for the world's largest sporting event, civil-society groups have increased pressure on the Qatari government to ensure that migrant workers are treated humanely and in accordance with international labor standards.
Getting a Red Card: Qatar's Treatment of Migrants Equated to "Modern-Day Slavery" by Civil Society
This year, a number of civil-society groups have highlighted the poor treatment of migrant workers in Qatar, with some calling their situation "modern-day slavery." Far too many migrants pay onerous sums to unscrupulous recruitment agencies to be deployed to Qatar, and endure appalling working and living conditions while there, as documented by Amnesty International in a November report on conditions in Qatar's construction sector. The ITUC warned in September that 4,000 construction workers would die by 2022 if the Qatari government does not introduce meaningful reforms to improve the welfare of migrant workers. This dire warning came after an investigative report from British newspaper The Guardian revealed that at least 44 Nepalese workers died between June and August, eliciting serious concerns within the international football community. FIFpro, the international footballers' union, said it was "deeply alarmed by reports of the brutal exploitation of migrant workers." German Football League President Reinhard Rauball noted that the "the credibility of world football and its moral integrity are at stake."
Other organizations have conducted investigations into working conditions for migrants in Qatar. Not long after The Guardian piece was published, a delegation of the Building and Wood Workers' International (BWI), a federation of trade unions based in Geneva, visited Qatar and reported finding "disturbing evidence of wrong practices."
In early November, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights sent Francois Crepeau, the UN special rapporteur on human rights, on an eight-day mission to Qatar to evaluate the situation of migrant workers. Sharing his preliminary findings, Crepeau recommended that Qatar abolish its "kafala," or sponsorship system, which requires unskilled laborers to have an in-country sponsor and forbids them from changing jobs or obtaining an exit visa without the sponsor's permission. Crepeau recommended that Qatar allow migrant workers to form unions and adopt legislation to protect labor rights. He also criticized the practice of detaining workers who leave their employers, and referred to the labor camps he visited as "a stain in the reputation of Qatar." Crepeau's full report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in April 2014.
In response to increasing international pressure from civil society, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the World Cup's governing body, promised that issues raised by The Guardian's reporting and civil-society groups will be investigated and action taken. The Qatari government appointed the law firm DLA Piper to independently probe claims of exploitation of migrants working in World Cup-related construction projects.
Whether these developments ultimately have real, direct impact on migrant workers' welfare is far from certain. Recent pronouncements from key actors within Qatar, especially those with government links, suggest room for cautious optimism, nonetheless. For instance, Qatari Diar, Qatar's state-owned investment fund company and a key real estate developer, recently pledged to work only with construction companies that take worker safety seriously and pay salaries on time.
Likewise, Qatar Foundation, a semi-private organization founded by the royal family, issued a set of detailed standards for the treatment of migrants employed by the foundation and its contractors and subcontractors in the building of infrastructure for the World Cup. The standards, welcomed by a number of civil-society groups as an important sign of progress, prohibit charging workers recruitment fees and require employers in Qatar to reimburse the migrant workers for any fees they have paid in Qatar or abroad. Qatar Foundation developed the standards in consultation with a number of members, including the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, the government's coordinating body tasked with ensuring that infrastructure and development projects are delivered in time for the World Cup.
Given its vast financial resources and highly developed governmental institutions, the Qatari government is more than capable of initiating and sustaining the comprehensive reforms needed to effect real change. The oil-rich country is one of the wealthiest in the world, recording the second largest GDP per capita in 2012. The 2013 World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report also ranks Qatar as the most competitive economy in the Middle East and 13th worldwide. The report attributed Qatar's strong performance in part due to the high quality of its institutions, characterized by extremely low levels of corruption and undue influence on government decisions. In other words, the Qatari government enjoys the reputation of playing by its own rules.
Beyond Qatar and the World Cup
These developments in the run-up to 2022 could well have repercussions that extend beyond Qatar and the World Cup. In many ways, migrants across the Middle East face similar challenges, and solutions that work and are acceptable in Qatar are relevant to other countries in the region. If civil-society groups, international organizations, the private sector, and the Qatari government work together, Qatar could serve as a testing ground for viable labor migration policy and institutional reforms. These reforms, if proven successful, could have a demonstration effect, triggering the adoption of similar reforms elsewhere in the Arab Gulf. In short, Qatar could indeed be a catalyst for positive change in the region.
Amnesty International. 2013. The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar's Construction Sector Ahead of the World Cup. Available online.
Building and Wood Workers' International. 2013. BWI mission decries Qatar's lack of urgency to stop abuses. Available online.
Der Spiegel. 2013. 'Open Prison': Worker Deaths Cast Shadow Over Qatar World Cup. Der Spiegel, October 1. Available online.
Dickinson, Elizabeth. 2013. Qatar appoints law firm to probe worker abuse claims. The National, October 3. Available online.
FIFPro. 2013. Qatar must uphold football's universal standards. Available online.
Human Rights Watch. 2012. Building a Better World Cup: Protecting Migrant Workers in Qatar Ahead of FIFA 2022. Available online.
International Trade Union Confederation. 2013. Qatar 2022 World Cup risks 4000 lives, warns International Trade Union Confederation. Available online.
Khatri, Shabina S. 2013. Qatari Diar warns construction companies against violating labor law. Doha News, November 5. Available online.
Kovessy, Peter. 2013. UN official: Qatar should scrap kafala, enforce existing labor laws. Doha News, November 10. Available online.
Pattisson, Pete. 2013. Revealed: Qatar's World Cup 'slaves.' The Guardian, September 25. Available online.
Qatar Foundation. 2013. QF Mandatory Standards of Migrant Workers' Welfare for Contractors and Sub-Contractors. Available online.
Schwab, Klaus. 2013. The Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014. Geneva: World Economic Forum. Available online.
Solidarity Center. 2013. Qatar Foundation Releases Standards for Migrant Workers. News release, May 16, 2013. Available online.