When Qatar won the right to host the World Cup in 2010, there was little awareness—outside the Gulf and workers’ countries of origin—of the problems associated with migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf. FIFA’s decision changed this almost instantly, drawing a global spotlight onto the issue and the now notorious “kafala” system.
Football media, fans, and sponsors, as well as parliaments, wanted to know how Qatar’s World Cup stadiums and infrastructure would be built. The scale of the program was unusual even for a mega-sporting event, with the International Labor Organization (ILO) correctly projecting that Qatar would need to recruit about a million additional migrant workers to deliver the tournament in 2022. Also unusual was the degree of control kafala gave employers over workers, who also had no rights to represent themselves through unions.
A series of critical reports, highlighting the widespread nature of abuse, prompted the Qatari government to commission its own report with recommendations, though it did not take these forward. The Supreme Committee, organizing the World Cup, developed special contractual standards and monitoring processes for stadium construction, though these applied to a small percentage of workers and excluded infrastructure workers. Even these standards could not stop stadium workers being abused, as a 2016 Amnesty report found.
By 2017, Qatar faced a potential commission of inquiry at the ILO. This was the point at which Qatar’s neighbors cut ties over political differences. Amidst the ensuing aggressive measures and info wars, anti-Qatar lobbyists pushed for the country to be stripped of the 2022 World Cup, partly because of the treatment of workers. The crisis created new incentives for Qatar to show it was addressing criticism over labor rights and prove itself a responsible member of the international community. Soon after, Qatar agreed a reform partnership with the ILO, changing the political dynamic around migrant labor rights.
The intervening years have seen several reforms, including the abolition of the exit permit for most workers, the introduction of more job mobility, a law providing some legal protections for domestic workers, and a minimum wage. Qatar’s strategic partners have enthusiastically supported the reform program, alongside FIFA, clearly relieved to see progress after years of (largely justified) criticism over its inaction on worker rights.
And yet, amidst the positivity, there remain serious questions about the legacy 2022 will leave for migrant workers. Despite a shakeup of the labor complaints system, researchers continue to find large-scale cases of workers subjected to wage theft and left thousands of riyals out of pocket. While some companies have set up worker committees, workers still cannot join trade unions, a fundamental human right. Migrant workers continue to die in large numbers every year with no proper cause of death identified, and with concerns this is being partly driven by heat. Domestic workers continue to share harrowing stories of abuse. Meanwhile, experts have raised concerns with the implementation of the key 2020 reforms that are supposed to take the sting out of kafala, allowing workers to move jobs more easily.
There are two key questions at this stage. The first is for the government: how far is it prepared to go to make sure that migrants can genuinely expect to be treated fairly and justly during their time in Qatar? There can be no room for complacency, given the scale and depth of the problems the government has committed to addressing.
The second question is for those inside and outside Qatar following this issue: will they take their eye off the ball after December 18, 2022, when the football spotlight moves onto North America? The reality is that it will not be possible to simply “solve” the problem of migrant labor abuse and move on. Those who want to see this through will need to remain engaged for the long haul.
Article by James Lynch, director of FairSquare.
James Lynch is a director of FairSquare, which carries out research and advocacy on human rights issues. He led Amnesty’s work on migrant workers in Qatar for several years and was the lead author on major reports on the construction sector and domestic workers. Prior to that, he worked at the British Embassy in Doha as the political and press/public affairs officer.
Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.