Worker’s rights, the Qatar World Cup’s enduring stigma

By Javier Picazo Feliu 

Doha, Dec 28 (EFE).- Although football’s greatest competition has wrapped up for another four years, Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup, has yet to address the enduring controversy of its treatment of the thousands of migrant workers who built its grandiose stadiums amid allegations of unpaid salaries, abusive contracts and harsh working conditions in searing temperatures. 

Human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have denounced the semi-slave conditions and cases of mistreatment faced by migrant workers who constructed Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure. 

Estimates vary and are unclear, but some international media outlets say as many as 6,500 migrant workers died as a result of the conditions in the wealthy Gulf nation. Some 30,000 workers were active during the busiest period of construction. 

Many of the deaths among the Indian, Nepali and Bangladeshi laborers in Qatar were attributed to “natural causes” by authorities in Qatar, where postmortem exams are reserved for exceptional cases only. 

“Now, when it comes to World Cup stadiums, I mean, I’m sure you’ve spoken to the Supreme Committee of the World Cup and they will tell you, according to their figures, three workers have died on site and 37 other Committee workers have died (indirectly),” Max Tuñón, the head of the International Labour Organization’s projects office in Qatar, tells Efe. 

“One of the things that our study found and recommended was that while we’re able to detect the number of people who have died from work related accidents, it’s much harder to determine how many people have died from work related diseases. And this is a challenge all over the world,” he added. 

Construction workers at Lusail Stadium during a media tour in Doha, Qatar, 20 December 2019. EFE/EPA/ALI HAIDER

A LACK OF CLARITY

Hassan Al Thawadi, the Supreme Committee’s secretary general, told British channel TalkTV that between 400 and 500 migrant workers died in the run up to the World Cup, but the Committee later revised that figure to say only around 40 deaths were linked to the construction of stadiums. 

The ILO estimated in a report that 50 migrant workers died in Qatar in 2020, while 500 were seriously injured and 37,600 suffered light injuries at work — the vast majority in the latter category relating to falls, being hit by objects of traffic accidents. 

These figures are but the extreme tip of a long list of complaints from migrant workers that highlight deplorable living conditions, insecurity, overcrowding, lies and continual delays in the payment of salaries, which barely hit $500 a month, visa rules that force workers to stay as long as their employers want and the confiscation of passports until targets are met. 

Qatar defends its track record by pointing out its introduction of rapid labor reforms to avoid thermal stress caused by high temperatures, new legislation to halt work when temperatures rise above 45C (113F) and annual health checks. 

In March 2021, Qatar introduced a non-discriminatory wage law that set a minimum salary of $500 monthly for some 280,000 workers, 13% of the active population in Qatar. 

“What we can say is that the condition for workers overall has improved in the past few years,” Tuñón says. 

“Hundreds of thousands of workers have benefited from new laws and policies that have been introduced, but also the new systems and protection mechanisms. It’s not to say it’s perfect. There are still challenges we receive on a daily basis, still complaints from workers where there are gaps in implementation and enforcement of the legislation.

“So we know there are still real concerns that workers face. But overall, if we zoom back and take a look at how things have improved, we can see from 2017, 2018, when we first arrived into the country until now, there has been really tremendous progress there.” 

Construction workers at Lusail Stadium during a media tour in Doha, Qatar, 20 December 2019. EFE/EPA/ALI HAIDER

21ST CENTURY SLAVERY

One of the key contributing factors to the poor living standards for migrant workers in Qatar is the Kafala system, which in English translates to “guarantee.”

The system, which dates back to the 1950s when the energy industry began to boom in Qatar, in theory guarantees work, housing, salary and food for foreign workers, who would generally send their salaries home to their families. In practice, however, it was often used to hold workers in semislave conditions. 

Until it was modified, the Kafala system allowed employees to exert almost full control over workers by confiscating their passports, controlling their wages and, above all, forbidding them from changing jobs before their contract was finished. 

This made the workers reliant on their employers, and put them at risk of detention and deportation. 

“This is really at the heart of the whole labor reform agenda here in Qatar,” Tuñón says. 

“Previously, a worker was dependent on their employer in order to enter the country, in order to find a job and in order to leave the country.

“In the last few years, as part of the labor reform agenda, the most problematic elements of the Kafala system have been dismantled. So now workers can leave the country without permission. And very importantly, workers have the legal right to change jobs without their employers permission.”

After its implementation, between November 1, 2022 and August 31, 2022, Qatar’s employment ministry registered 348,500 job change petitions, although the process remains tricky for workers despite the rule changes, according to ILO data. 

“Now that the employee can change jobs, it means that they are in a position to negotiate for better working and living conditions. And it means that the employer is also incentivized to provide better living and working conditions, better wages, in order to attract and retain workers.”

2030 VISION

“It’s a very positive trajectory that Qatar is on,” the ILO representative says. 

“At the same time, we recognize that there are challenges and it’s going to take time to build and strengthen these institutions that have been created to ensure more effective implementation and enforcement of the legislation.”

It is a continuing process for which the World Cup was not the end goal, but a stage in the evolution towards a diversified economy with greater labor protections as part of the country’s ambitions for the next decade under the Qatar National Vision 2030 strategy. 

“Put it this way, we don’t have this kind of presence anywhere else in the Gulf. And also Qatar is not only engaging with the ILO, but also with the international trade union movement,” he adds. 

“So I think there is a high degree of transparency and a high degree of willingness to work with the international community to resolve issues that they recognize are problematic,” he adds. EFE

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