Kafala Labor System Reform and the 2022 World Cup

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Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup attracted international scrutiny over the country’s kafala labor system. The construction of the country’s football stadiums relies on the labor of migrant workers, the majority of whom come from South Asia, and many of whom suffer dangerous conditions and meager wages. While the kafala system predates the World Cup and is prevalent across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the recent pace of reform in Qatar can largely be credited to international pressure that came with hosting the tournament.

What is the Kafala System?

Kafala refers to the system of labor sponsorship prevalent in the GCC and neighboring Lebanon. The system binds workers through contract to a kafeel (sponsor), who controls their immigration status. The kafeel has full control over contract terms, including wage and accommodation, as long as state law is not violated. The kafeel also often controls the mobility of workers through illegal confiscation of passports. Historically, workers have had to acquire an exit permit from the kafeel to leave the country and a non-objection certificate (NOC) to switch jobs—a policy that was officially abolished in Qatar in August 2020.

Kafala is ultimately a devolved system of labor governance. Recent scholarship has explored British colonial bureaucratic formalization of sponsorship that began in Bahrain. Because the number of British officials were limited, the system delegated the responsibility of regulating individual immigration status to ship-owners and companies.

More importantly, the kafala contains an amalgamation of racial, ethnic, and class hierarchy. While all foreigners are under sponsorship, the term “migrant worker” is mostly reserved for lower-income black and Asian workers. Higher income foreign workers, often referred to as “expats,” have negotiation power over their work contracts, live in comfortable accommodation, and can leave the country relatively easily.

The starkest hierarchical difference, however, is between GCC nationals and non-nationals. Many GCC nationals are anxious about the majority status of foreigners in the national census, and foreign migrant workers often face stigmas as “principal carriers and agents for a range of infectious diseases, of having poor hygiene habits, and engaging in social and cultural behaviors that pose risk to broader community health.”

The 2022 World Cup and the Kafala System

The initial constructions for the 2022 World Cup directly benefitted from the cheap labor of the kafala system. When Qatar won the World Cup bid in 2010, there was no implementation of progressive labor standard during those first years. It is only when organizations like Amnesty International exposed the working conditions at World Cup sites that international attention intensified. Labor quickly became a two-fold problem for Qatar: First, many contractors were violating legal guidelines when it came to treatment of workers, and, second, the guidelines themselves did not provide workers with adequate wages and protections.

International opinions about the kafala have evolved over the past decades. On one end of the spectrum are those who call for boycotts of the 2022 World Cup, such as grassroots efforts in Germany and Norway. These calls mainly came from football fans who were new to the issue, and who did not want their national teams to participate in the tournament.

On the other hand, experts, NGOs, and those who are more familiar with the region generally do not support a boycott, but most recognize the pressing need for reform. NGOs with long histories of kafala reform advocacy, such as Migrant Rights and Fair Square, have used the World Cup’s momentum to intensify their campaigning efforts.

The media is an area of strong contestations for observers of kafala reforms. Local media in Qatar often criticizes “Western biases” in foreign media’s coverage. For instance, a Guardian newspaper reported that 6,500 migrant workers have died since Qatar won the World Cup bid, which was misleading because the number is actually that of all workers who have died since 2010, not just those who worked on the World Cup.

While there are certainly a number of reductionist articles in foreign media, especially during the years after Amnesty’s first exposé on the World Cup, other international publications are producing nuanced reports that also factor in FIFA’s accountability regarding the issue. Even the Qatar state-funded Al Jazeera Media Network has published reports on worker abuse, matching international outlets.

Qatar, in part, has been receptive and offered occasional reforms when faced with international pressure. The country most recently dismantled the exit permit and NOC requirements for workers in August 2020, along with raising its non-discriminatory minimum wage. This sets the minimum at QR 1,000 (USD 275) as a basic wage, with an additional QR 300 (USD 82) allowance if the company does not provide food, and a QR 500 (USD 137) allowance if the company does not provide housing. Qatar had previously attempted similar reforms in 2014 and 2016, but it did not fully protect workers’ rights to job change and mobility.

These reform measures were aided by Qatar’s partnership with the International Labor Organization (ILO), which began in 2017, after the ILO found previous reform measures unsatisfactory. Qatar is currently discussing potentially having a permanent ILO office in Qatar.

Complexities of Reform Implementation

While the World Cup is perceived as a deadline for changing the kafala system in Qatar, reform will likely extend many years beyond it. What international commentators often miss is the difficulty of completely dismantling kafala reform on the ground.

Even with recent legal changes, implementation of new labor reforms depends on the actions of companies and employers. For instance, a recent report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre revealed that abuses against migrant workers are rampant in international hotel chains in Qatar. In May 2021, hundreds of security guards protested against their employer, Qatar Security Services (one of the Qatari Bin Arbaid Group companies), over non-payment of wages and overtime. As such, adding to pressure on the state, members of the international community can further demand corporations, especially those from their specific countries, to take accountability for their workforce.

Another stakeholder in labor reform that is receiving increasing attention is the newly elected Shura Council, which previously recommended policies pushed back on labor reform measures. The Council, which has the power to propose and amend laws, will have to balance between business interests and workers’ rights.

Article by Ngoc Nguyen, writer and graduate of Georgetown University in Qatar

Ngoc Nguyen is a writer and graduate of Georgetown University in Qatar. They authored the thesis “From Slavery to Kafala: British Colonialism and Its Impact on Labor Governance in the Persian Gulf 1800–1950,” and previously interned at CIRS, The Brookings Doha Center, and Al Jazeera English.

Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.