The Qatar 2022 World Cup – Labor Rights Abuses of Migrant Workers
On December 2, 2010, the global community was shocked at the announcement of the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup – Qatar. With very little soccer culture as well as intensely hot temperatures, Qatar is a surprising choice to host this international event, with many alluding to corruption from FIFA and Qatar for this choice. Further, the landmass in Qatar makes it the smallest country to host this international event, another concern due to the huge crowd that comes to enjoy the World Cup. Apart from the logistics of hosting the World Cup, many more fear the conditions of the migrant laborers working to build the twelve stadiums, new airport, roads, hotels, and other infrastructural changes to prepare for 2022. Well before the 2010 announcement, human rights groups advocated for a change to Qatar’s system for employing migrants. The name of the current system is kafala, a system forcing all migrants to be sponsored and subsequently tied to an employer. This employer controls housing, wages, travel, and the well being of each employee. Kafala resembles slavery, exploiting workers for the benefit of the employers. Workers mainly from South and Southeast Asia travel to Qatar on the prospect of a job to make money to send remittances back to their families, but the kafala system traps them under the purview of their employer. Qatar has not changed their policy of the kafala system with the 2022 World Cup announcement, even with the additional international scrutiny towards its government. Its November 2017, announcement with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) that it will disband the kafala and promote more fair standards has yet to be implemented. The 2022 World Cup announcement has seen a significant rise in migrant workers coming to Qatar, creating a larger humanitarian crisis for the living and working conditions of the laborers. Migrant worker’s rights are protected and explained in a variety of treaties and covenants from the International Labour Organization (ILO), most of which Qatar has not signed, ratified, or adheres to. In addition to ratifying, signing, and adhering to the treaties and covenants of the ILO, Qatar must abolish the kafala system to ensure livable and workable conditions for the migrants. The 2022 World Cup is the best vehicle to enable Qatar to make these changes, and continual pressure from the UN, the ILO, and other organizations and governments can lead to changed policy in Qatar. The kafala system has existed long before the December 2, 2010, announcement, and it might occur after the 2022 World Cup if a succinct policy change is not created in Qatar.
Prior academic studies have focused on the issue of migrant labor rights in terms of general labor migration patterns and compliance with ILO treaties. However, little research has examined labor reforms to the preparation of major global events, like the World Cup or the Olympics. Host countries are announced upwards of a decade before the official start date in order to build modern and state-of-the-art stadiums, arenas, and other venues along with infrastructural changes to host the international competitors and spectators to host the quadrennial event. The month-long event takes years of preparation, which adds intense stress on the host country to finish on time. This is a massive undertaking for the chosen country, and more times than not, migrant labor is utilized to be able to construct everything necessary for the event. The correct treatment of these workers in accord with their rights is detailed in ILO treaties; however, many of the host countries have not signed them. The purpose of this study is to focus on one specific upcoming global sporting event, the 2022 Qatar World Cup, and the condition of the migrant laborers in preparation for the games.
In preparation for global sporting events, migrant workers are frequently exploited through stealing of wages, excessively long working hours, potentially deadly working and living conditions, and the restriction of free movement. In general human rights literature, any of the above actions violates basic principles of freedom, yet countries throughout the globe institute systems of exploitation of migrant laborers, even regardless of an upcoming international event. Countries actively pursue these systems in order to gain more access to international economic markets through cheap, foreign labor. In terms of sporting events, there is much more international scrutiny towards the host country after the announcement to host is made to ensure that the construction and preparation does not violate the rights of the workers. Since many of these countries employ migrants to construct the buildings, international organizations focus on the rights specified in the documents of the ILO. And in most cases, the migrant laborers’ rights are being violated in order to prepare quickly and more efficiently for the future event.
In terms of international law, the most comprehensive convention focusing on the rights of migrant laborers is the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families from the United Nations (hereafter the 1990 Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers). This document succinctly lays out the specific rights of migrant workers through clarifying the types of appropriate international protection to ensure that these rights are granted. Further, the purpose of the convention is to unify the body of law applicable to migrant workers and improve the situation of migrant workers present and in the future. In human rights law, this convention corresponds well with other major human rights documents, providing a basis for the list of worker’s and worker’s family’s rights.  The specific articles in the convention directly correlate to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to ensure the most accurate definitions of rights are given to migrants.
In tandem with the 1990 Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers, the ILO is designed to protect migrant workers. However, many of the countries that are the worst offenders of migrant worker exploitation, are not parties to the 1990 Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers, which highlights its overall ineffectiveness in enacting global standards for migrant worker rights. Although its implementation is weak, this convention and the impetus for its creation mirror the ILO’s rise due to its modern role in the forefront of the development of international measures to benefit migrant workers through standard setting, technical cooperation, and research. The ILO’s main focus is protection of migrant workers through reforms and conventions such as the 1990 Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers. The ILO has many other treaties and conventions on other aspects of migrant worker rights that have been ratified more globally than the 1990 Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers. Further, the ILO has the authority to monitor the compliance of treaty ratification, reducing the competitive advantages that a member state might otherwise receive from refusing to ratify treaties that the ILO adopts. This monitoring makes it more difficult for a state to cheat surreptitiously by violating migrant worker rights. Further, it provides a mechanism for domestic interest groups to challenge government practices that are inconsistent with international legal standards, including those that the government has not formally accepted.
Global measures for labor rights do not entirely take into count locally enforced labor law. However, these global measures can be targeted for a specific recurring event. Leading up to the South Africa 2010 World Cup, South Africa trade unions developed a model for labor regulation through its ‘Campaign for Decent Work Towards and Beyond 2010’. The “Campaign for Decent Work Towards and Beyond 2010” was historic in the sense that it was the first large-scale, systematically implemented trade union campaign in connection with a mega sports event. Until the South Africa 2010 World Cup, there was not much international impetus on implementing international standards for working conditions. The ‘Campaign for Decent Work Towards and Beyond 2010’ presents the opportunity to promote these working conditions, with its mainy goal of effective replication in future events. Although this campaign has faltered, the local movement to impact international standards is translatable to Middle Eastern issues, as local movements are much more successful.
Qatar and its neighbors do not view the kafala system as harmful or exploitative. They continue using it because it is an efficient way to have cheap labor in many economic sectors of their country, but especially construction. They view the migrant workers as replaceable due to the high demand for work from those originating in South and Southeast Asian nations. Qatar’s unquenchable ambition to dazzle the world with modern stadiums leads to an increase in migrant workers, succumbing them to systemized exploitation. The overall lack of academic research on the interplay of the kafala system and the rights of workers leads to the suggestion of a new policy in the region that attunes to the 1990 Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers as well as other ILO treaties in order to protect the migrant workers in Qatar from hazardous conditions and horrendous treatment. Failed attempts such as the ‘Campaign for Decent Work Towards and Beyond 2010’ highlight the pressing need for an internationalization of labor rights with specific focuses on each country.
Policy History and Current Status
Qatar has a lopsided population; only about 10% of the population is citizens. The other 90% are expatriate migrant workers with temporary residency status primarily from South and Southeast Asian countries. These migrants are subjugated under a labor system called kafala where they are tied to an employer, who must approve every decision they make. Further, the nationality of migrant workers plays a huge role in Qatar for social mobility. Migrants make up 94% of the workforce in Qatar, with hundreds of new migrants entering each year and very few exiting. Overall, the living and working conditions for migrant laborers are deplorable, and with the announcement of the 2022 World Cup, the situation has only worsened, regardless of Qatar’s claims to alter its laws to accommodate the wishes of the international community.
For World Cup preparation, the influx of new migrant workers are focusing on building the new stadiums, hotels, roads, airport, and transportation system, all billed at $140+ billion United States Dollars. The conditions to house the migrants working on these new projects are filthy, cramped, and dangerous, and even without the pressure of the World Cup, hundreds of workers die each year from work accidents. In perspective, one death in preparation for a sporting event is a tremendous disappointment for the host country, and Qatar’s death toll already shows 1,200 migrants for the 2022 World Cup preparation alone, with this figure coming from a 2014 report.
The kafala system is solely to blame for the amount of deaths in the past eight years since the announcement. Qatar has widely used this system well before the December 2, 2010, announcement, and they continue to use to for 2022 World Cup preparations. Under kafala it is impossible for a migrant construction worker to find alternative work when his employer forces him to work twelve hours per day in 100+-degree weather and withholds his pay. If Qatar does not change its policy by the start of the 2022 World Cup, and estimated 4,000 migrant workers will die, making this event the deadliest in sporting history. Further, the kafala system has been frequently described as modern day slavery due to its exploitative nature. Forced labor, unpaid work, confiscation of documents, and withholding food and water to the migrants are a few of the instances of control the employers enact over the migrants under the kafala system.
As an unexpected consequence of the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar and in tandem with the relentless international pressure against FIFA and Qatar, aspects of the kafala system have been changed allowing a bit more freedom for the workers. This follows the November 2017 agreement with the ITUC and ILO to abolish kafala. This led to a brand new law “The Domestic Workers Law” and a brand new ILO project office in Doha to oversee the changes. However, as the time for Qatar’s chance to host the international event draws nearer, the changes seem to be much more of a dream than reality. The aspects that have been changed basically amount to a simple name swap from kafala and to “Domestic Workers Law.” The exploitation, racism, labor living camps, and horrible conditions are still prevalent in order to complete the brand new infrastructure for the event. These agreements and announcements have continually not been implemented, increasing the death toll of the migrant laborers.
Qatar’s policy of claiming to amend laws without implementing any new reforms further exacerbates the harm caused by the kafala system. Over the past eight years, despite massive public exposure of the appalling conditions faced by most migrant construction workers, the Qatari authorities have not promoted policies to end the chronic labor exploitation. This non-action to the multiple policy proposals on how to abolish the kafala system and implements other models of labor reform is an incredibly weak policy stance from Qatar. Human rights advocacy groups have called for the end of the kafala system with several policies to improve the migrant labor program in Qatar, but all to no avail as the government has not yet changed its policy. Few have suggested ways to amend the country’s stance from local perspective. One scholar suggests empowering the local Qataris to recognize the wrong existing in their country to enact change locally instead of international organizations actively vilifying Qatar for its exploitative policies.  Solely attacking Qatar has led to it window-dressing its labor law reforms to appease outsiders. Further, inadequate monitoring and reporting mechanisms allow violations of the labor laws to continue. Qatar employs only 150 labor inspectors to monitor the conditions of 1.2 million workers. According to labor ministry officials, none of these inspectors speak languages commonly spoken by workers and inspections do not include worker interviews. Inspectors monitor housing conditions, payment problems, employment contracts, and working hours, they do so only by visiting sites and reviewing company records.
FIFA has not put much pressure on Qatar in the past eight years, especially failing to deliver on its promise this May to investigate the detention of British and German journalists who tried to examine migrant workers’ working and living conditions in Qatar. Without pressure from FIFA, Qatar feels less compelled to enact any viable changes to its policy. In terms of World Cup logistics, FIFA has been extremely proactive to enable Qatar to host the World Cup, especially the unprecedented step of moving the tournament from summer to winter. FIFA’s overall lack of a direct response to the violations occurring in Qatar, allows the kafala system to continue to thrive and exploit thousands of vulnerable migrant workers each year.
Proposed Policy Change
First and foremost, the kafala system must be abolished as per the November 2017 agreement with the ILO. Qatar must take this as the first step in reforming its labor laws with a respect of the rights of the migrant workers. The kafala system will be replaced with a plan for a five, eight, and ten-year work permits. The migrants would fill out the specific time frame that they want to work in Qatar through updated and transparent recruitment contracts with terms and conditions clearly stated, and have the option to renew independently. In tandem, the employers would not have the ability to confiscate passports and force labor, and would be promptly sent to prison if they continue the old policy.
The new policy focuses on three main issues: paying wages fair and on time, expanding the number of labor inspectors, and promoting ratification of international treaties. Firstly, a wage protection system that requires businesses to pay workers on time by direct bank deposits was signed into law in February 2015 but only came into force in November 2015. Late payment of wages or the withholding of payments is a widespread problem that leaves migrant workers and their families back home in desperate situations. Creating a specific and transparent payment plan to ensure every worker gets paid at least a minimum wage – a number that must be decided upon an agreement between the host and home countries – will show Qatar’s willingness to grant human rights to its workers. Secondly, to ensure compliance with the new policy, a larger force of labor inspectors are needed to monitor the living and working conditions of the migrants. These inspectors will be trained on human rights standards and in the languages of the migrant workers by a team of interpreters in order to conduct interviews to gauge more accurately the conditions from the migrants’ perspectives. More inspectors will be able to understand the full situation occurring in all sectors where there are migrant workers, and can spearhead different aspects of the role through monitor housing conditions, payment problems, employment contracts, and working hours. And finally, Qatar must make its commitment to the human rights of its workers legally binding internationally through ratifying a number of international treaties that align domestic legislation with international commitments, especially the 1990 Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Several ILO treaties target legislation at protecting domestic workers, cooperating with international institutions concerning migration and human trafficking, and training public officials and recruiting agencies in best practices to combat human trafficking, and Qatar will prove to the world it is serious about policy reform if it ratifies these treaties.
Other important policy recommendations underneath the three aforementioned policies that Qatar must take to end the exploitation of its laborers are enforcing the prohibition of the confiscation of passports, ending illegal recruitment, beginning the transition to a open labor market where the work permit allows the worker to change employers, ending the detention of individuals running away from their employer, and creating an agreement with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in order to make sure Qatari legislation and practice is in line with their newly ratified treaties. These additional policies counteract the violations against migrant rights Qatar is currently conducting. The kafala system occurs in several other countries, so Qatar’s new stance may inspire other countries to also abolish it. Many organizations are still calling for a location change for the 2022 World Cup, so with a commitment to stronger human rights values, these groups will likely focus on another human rights issue. However, Qatar’s continued right to host might be reconsidered and contingent on a respect for human rights, if FIFA changes its stance toward Qatar.
The biggest challenge is empowering the local Qataris enact change locally. Coordination throughout the country is crucial to ensure that Qatar does not continue to talk about reforming its labor laws to appease outsiders without beginning to implement any of the policies. More realistically, the full ratification of the many treaties will be the very last reform Qatar undertakes; but if the current kafala system is abolished and replaced with actual reforms, then the 4,000 migrant worker deaths projection will only be a gross miscalculation.
With the 2022 World Cup preparation currently ongoing, now is the time to advocate for a policy change to labor laws in Qatar. The 2022 World Cup is four years away, and with no immediate plans to relocate to a country with less human rights violations, more migrant laborers will travel to Qatar to construct the infrastructure needed to host this large event. However, the number of deaths from the December 2, 2010, announcement to today is horrendously huge and highlights that international sporting events have a higher cost than just the financial burden. Qatar’s kafala system is modern-day slavery due to its highly exploitative nature taking advantage of the migrant workers coming to make money to support their families from South and Southeast Asia. Although choosing Qatar to host the World Cup in the first place may have been an odd or even conspicuous choice, it has elucidated the violation of migrant worker rights in the Persian Gulf monarchies to propose the best policies to end them. Minimum wages, transparency, more and better trained labor inspectors, and free movement are all rights granted to migrant workers, and countries must stop exploiting these vulnerable populations simply to make a profit. The kafala system is not only in Qatar, and these recommendations can be duplicated to any other country violating the rights of migrant laborers. Hopefully, the 2022 World Cup will not be built on the bones of 4,000 vulnerable people.
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