2022 Football World Cup: Outrage Over Qatar’s Exploitative Labour Practices

A year ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, NGOs, football teams and even players raised their voices against the country’s violation of labour’s rights on migrant workers building the brand-new stadiums in the small Gulf Emirate. Earlier this year, Qatar announced measures, including reforms to its Sponsorship Programme — Kafala — to improve the safety and provide better treatment of migrant workers. But the 2022 World Cup remains perhaps the most controversial of all, before it even started, over the 6,750 deaths among migrant construction workers since 2011.

In an interview for the Guardian in February of this year, Pete Pattinson, journalist, summarized the situation in Doha declaring: “if you know your worker cannot leave, what incentive is there to treat them well?” Qatar is a member of the International Labour Organization, and signatory of the Forced Labour Convention. But the conditions in which foreign workers live in the small emirate sparked worldwide outrage, as the 2022 FWC organisation shed light on abuses suffered by the foreign workforce.

Hiba Zayadin, researcher for Human Rights Watch, stressed how the NGO pressured Qatar to investigate the deaths of workers building the new facilities. “Unfortunately, Qatar has refused to make public any meaningful data on migrant workers deaths” regrets Zayadin. In a Press Release published on Qatari’s Government Communication Bureau website, officials emphasized the “small percentage” that the 6,500 deaths represent in the overall foreign workers population in Qatar. They declared, “As part of our efforts to reduce the mortality rate further, we have raised awareness of health risks such as smoking and an unhealthy diet, strengthened health and safety laws, launched mental health initiatives including a mental health hotline in multiple languages.” NGOs deem this step insufficient.

Since 2011, more than 6,500 workers have died while working on construction sites in Qatar according to aggregate data from Qatar’s government and embassies of major sending countries. The causes of deaths are generally reported as “natural deaths” from heart failures or respiratory problems, disregarding the possible link between workers’ living conditions and the deaths claimed by NGOs. For NGOs and international observers, the Kafala scheme remains the principal cause of proven maltreatment of workers, as it grants disproportionate powers to employers over their employees, and legitimizing the confiscation of passports. It also criminalizes “absconding” and therefore restraining workers from resigning, to find a job elsewhere in Qatar or simply return to their home country.

In addition, migrant workers’ living conditions pose severe problems. Parked in overcrowded, unhealthy, and heavily guarded labour “camps,” as Pattinson qualifies them, workers on construction sites work long hours under extreme climate conditions and are therefore exposed to high risks for their health. Legal and medical investigations remain necessary to determine any causality between the workers’ living and working conditions and the 6,750 deaths.

However, Qatar’s defensive position over international scrutiny on its labour policy, constitutes an obstacle to such inquiries. In this respect, in May 2021, a Kenyan security guard, was arrested by Qatari police over “disinformation” charges and later deported back to Kenya after blogging about the poor working conditions for himself and all migrant workers in the country. In November, two Norwegian journalists were arrested as well for their research on migrant workers on stadium construction sites. Qatar seems particularly attentive to its international image; perhaps explaining why the official declaration exposed above comes from the Communication Bureau and not the Labour Ministry.

Following Kafala’s reform, Qatari authorities reported that hundreds of thousands of workers changed jobs or regained their country. However, Amnesty International qualified the policy shift as “cosmetic” and “smokescreen”, reporting little to no change in labour practices in Qatar, while the ILO positively received the reforms from Qatar. Dissonances in observations over labour policy in Qatar push further in favour of an official inquiry on the conditions in which the facilities that will soon receive millions of tourists have been built.