As Qatar prepares to host the World Cup in 2022, scrutiny from the international community over the country’s labor practices is steadily increasing. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and other human rights institutions, the demographics in Qatar have changed to the extent that today an astonishing 94 percent of its workers are migrants, and the numbers are expected to soar following the increased demands on the country’s construction industry. Workers, mostly from East Asia and Africa, migrate to the region hoping to support their families with remittances. However, many of them are deceived into working in terrible conditions for very low wages or in forced labor, while being told that they are being held to pay off the debt they have accumulated from the high costs of travel, housing, and living in expensive societies.

 

As Qatar prepares to host the World Cup in 2022, scrutiny from the international community over the country’s labor practices is steadily increasing. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and other human rights institutions, the demographics in Qatar have changed to the extent that today an astonishing 94 percent of its workers are migrants, and the numbers are expected to soar following the increased demands on the country’s construction industry. Much of this foreign labor force legally participates in the development of Qatar’s infrastructure, but there are also an estimated 130,000 domestic workers who live in varying conditions. Qatar suffers from the same labor rights violations that plague many Middle Eastern countries. Workers, mostly from East Asia and Africa, migrate to the region hoping to support their families with remittances. However, many of them are deceived into working in terrible conditions for very low wages or in forced labor, while being told that they are being held to pay off the debt they have accumulated from the high costs of travel, housing, and living in expensive societies.

Attempting to quantify the volume of labor trafficking in the Middle East is complicated, as data is scarce and the victims are usually undocumented and kept out of sight. Nonetheless, the ILO estimates that as many as 600,000 people are trafficked throughout the region, and the practice is thriving in Qatar, as large numbers of additional migrants have been introduced in order to build the infrastructure needed to host the 2022 event.

In Qatar the issue is institutionalized in the bureaucracy. Workers are bound to geographical and social immobility because the practice of labor exploitation is enshrined in the government’s laws; through the Kafala system workers are required to obtain permits through sponsors not only for employment and residence, but also permission from their sponsors to find employment elsewhere, or if they wish to leave the country. As a result of their weak social position, and constrained by the system, migrant workers often go unpaid or receive delayed salaries, and are unable to leave the country because their employers fail or refuse to issue them exit visas. Additionally, sponsors often withhold workers’ documents leaving them susceptible to further labor exploitation, violence, arrest, and detention or deportation.  The Kafala system is so poorly regarded internationally that the Government of Qatar’s consultants, international law firm DLA Piper, recommended that the Government abolish the system in a report which the Government commissioned. 

According to the US State Department 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, the Government of Qatar does “not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so” having implemented programs domestically to increase awareness of labor exploitation. Nonetheless, Qatar’s weak approach to addressing labor-human rights has led the country to being downgraded to “Tier 2 Watch List,” underscoring that the absolute number of labor trafficking victims is significant and increasing, and that the country has failed to provide real evidence of its commitment to bringing itself into compliance with international standards.

The insufficient efforts to tackle human rights can be identified, among other indicators, by the low number of inspectors (three hundred) for a population of over 1.2 million expat workers. Moreover, according to the report, the government did not report any investigations or prosecutions of public officials for alleged complicity in trafficking-related offenses. Therefore, in addition to the Kafala system and the resulting debt bondage expatriate workers often incur, the State Department identifies a general lack of agency in prosecuting the perpetrators of workforce exploitation as a leading driver of forced labor in Qatar.

The repercussions of labor trafficking in the Middle East resonate in the economies of the workers’ countries of origin; on one hand, many workers are unable to send the necessary remittances back to their source countries. On the other, the workers’ families, having lost their main source of income, are forced to take out loans, increasing the financial pressure on their households and further perpetuating the cycle of debt and poverty. In some instances, the impact of labor trafficking is even more dire; 366 Nepali construction workers died in Qatar under suspicious circumstances between 2006-2014, and many laborers return home ill or injured from their jobs. 

As the World Cup approaches and the volume of migrant laborers increases, additional pressure from the international community is required to ensure Qatar’s rapid compliance with international labor standards and its commitment to end labor trafficking. Why would FIFA, aware of the labor issues existent in the Middle East, choose Qatar for its most important event remains a question worthy of research on its own. Nevertheless, the World Cup provides an opportunity to expand the debate on labor trafficking, and renovate the global mission to fight poverty, in the hopes of improving labor rights in the Middle East.