Ahead of the World Cup in November, pressure is on for the Qatari government to step up protections for the two million migrants working in the country.
In an article for Forbes, Michael Posner, director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, reviews the state of play for labor rights in Qatar and urges high-profile companies and individuals involved in the World Cup to call for immediate change.
Unexplained deaths and unpaid wages
Since being named the next World Cup host in 2010, Qatar has invested $200 billion in new infrastructure, including eight stadiums, an airport, a port and over 100 hotels. These construction projects have largely been powered by the country’s migrant workers, who mostly come from India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
In recent years, the conditions of these workers have sparked outrage around the world. As Posner writes:
Despite the economic contribution migrant workers make to Qatar and other Gulf countries, they are generally undervalued. In Qatar and elsewhere, they routinely toil for long hours in blazing heat and often-unsafe work environments. All too often, their wages are paid late or subject to illegal deductions; sometimes, they are not paid at all.
More than 6,500 migrant workers allegedly died in the decade after Qatar was selected to host the World Cup. These deaths, reported in February 2021 by The Guardian, were said to be due to heatstroke, falls and “natural causes”. Although the government denies this claim, a lack of transparency around the registration and investigation of such deaths makes it impossible to verify.
Is Qatar doing enough to reform its labor system?
International pressure has resulted in some positive steps from Doha. Five years ago, the government partnered with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to improve labor laws and standards. The ILO’s mandate spans a wide range of areas, including wage payment, health and safety, recruitment processes, and the replacement of the notorious kafala sponsorship system.
Although some progress has been made in these areas, the self-payment of recruitment fees by workers continues to put workers in significant debt. A report by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, quoted by Posner, concludes:
In the absence of a clear legal mandate and active government enforcement, most companies still do not pay for recruitment, and an overwhelming majority of migrants continue to shoulder this financial burden. This shifting of costs to workers forces many to borrow at high interest rates to pay recruiting agencies in their home countries.
The economic situation of workers has been worsened by the pandemic. Although the government did grant access to adequate testing and healthcare, it fell short with regards to the financial fallout. Posner quotes the NYU Stern Center report:
In contrast to Qatar’s effective Covid-19 response, neither the government nor the construction companies it hires have adequately addressed the economic harms suffered by migrant workers as a result of coronavirus-related disruptions or the exploitation that long predated the pandemic.
Everyone can be part of the solution
In the eight months leading up to the World Cup, Posner sees a “golden opportunity” for Qatar to reform its labor system, especially regarding the payment of recruitment fees.
Although the government holds the ultimate responsibility for reforms, Posner calls on the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the event’s commercial sponsors, including Coke and Adidas, to put pressure on the government to act. Participating teams and individual footballers should use their platform to raise awareness of the situation and demand change.
Posner also sees an opportunity for consumers to influence working conditions for migrants. You can join the Freedom United community in calling on the Qatari government to introduce urgent and comprehensive reform. Sign this petition today.