Middle East

Has the World Cup really improved workers’ rights in Qatar? Five experts give their verdict

Global criticism of the treatment of hundreds of thousands of workers from countries such as Nepal, India and Bangladesh who have been building Qatar’s World Cup dream led to the Gulf state introducing a range of labour policy changes that it says have improved the lives of the migrant workforce. Have those changes worked and how likely are they to be sustained after the tournament? A panel of experts give their view.

Geoffrey: ‘Is it fair play when there is nothing for the workers?’

The World Cup is like a slap in the face of workers.

I have spoken to thousands of them. They don’t know their rights; their contracts are violated; there is discriminatory pay, and then there’s the weather. People are working in severe temperatures. They get dehydrated. Workers have been dying in their sleep. These deaths may be caused by the work, and their families should be compensated.

At least there is a minimum wage now. Before, there was no way you could complain about your salary, but now you know you should get at least 1,000 rials a month (£245). The problem is that it is too low. Way too low. How many billions of dollars has Qatar spent on preparations for the World Cup? The minimum wage is a drop in the ocean.

Kafala [a systemunder which workers cannot freely change jobs] was abolished for two or three months only. After that, these powerful Qataris who own big companies complained and the changes were watered down. Now there is a requirement to get your company to approve your resignation. This is like bringing the kafala system again through the back door.

The first time I was detained in Qatar was for trying to change my job. I could deal with it because I know my rights, but what about the thousands of workers who don’t know their rights? People have been deported just for trying to change companies.

Fifa talks a lot about “fair play”. Is it really fair play when there is nothing for the workers? Yes, a lot of workers got employment but it was under exploitative conditions. I think a country’s human rights record should be part of the evaluation process when awarding a World Cup. For Fifa, it was an afterthought.

  • Geoffrey, a Kenyan, worked in Qatar for three and a half years. While there, he also worked for the human rights group Equidem as a researcher and advocate for workers’ rights. He was detained three times and has now returned home, where he continues his advocacy work

Max Tuñón: ‘Now workers can negotiate for better conditions’

Earlier this year, we commissioned a survey among 1,000 low-wage workers, and found that 86% of respondents felt that the labour reforms had positively affected their lives.

Changes to the kafala system have led to labour mobility. Now workers can negotiate for better conditions, and employers are incentivised to provide them in order to attract and retain talent.

Legislation has also been introduced on the minimum wage, on protecting outdoor workers during the summer months, and on the election of migrant worker representatives within companies.

Over the past five years, the government has engaged closely with the ILO [International Labour Organization], international trade unions, NGOs and others. Notably, staff from the global unions are based with us here in Doha, raising awareness among workers, and helping them to resolve the problems they face.

There is universal acknowledgment that the work is not complete. Among our top priorities, there’s the need to address the retaliation by some employers against workers who wish to change jobs; to streamline access to justice and the recovery of due wages; and to ensure that the law protecting domestic workers is fully implemented.

We are all impatient to see the reforms fully applied and enforced, but we also recognise that we are dealing with new laws and new institutions, and changing practices that have been deeply entrenched for decades.

The World Cup was never the finish line, but rather a key milestone in Qatar’s longer-term strategy, which includes competing for skilled workers in an increasingly global market.

Construction manager: ‘All they want is to tick boxes’

The companies I work for are just getting away with everything. There are many people now walking around Qatar who have lost their jobs, haven’t received their end-of-service benefits or months of salary. I’ve seen a lot of good people suffer and it’s absolutely linked to the World Cup.

Qatar wanted to build everything as cheaply as possible. All the big contractors were fighting one another to win the work. They were winning jobs at any cost. As Qatar started slowing down its construction [before the World Cup], all these contractors then started to face problems … and where they save their money is by not paying suppliers or our salaries and end of services.

All the government and supreme committee [the local body organising the World Cup] want to do is tick boxes, show a good report and just hope and pray that no one finds out.

I’ve worked on a number of World Cup projects and we had good workers’ accommodation and bad workers’ accommodation. We did all our inspections at the good accommodation. This is how it works.

There’s no accountability. The government doesn’t enforce its own laws effectively. They did allow workers to change jobs … but the bad companies were losing all their workers, so the owners went to the government and said, “Stop this.”

It’s 50% the contractors’ fault and 50% the government’s fault. The country is too small for them not to know what’s going on.

Once the World Cup’s finished, that’s it. The eyes of the world will no longer be on Qatar. They’ll just go back to how they were.

Vani Saraswathi: ‘The true test will happen after the World Cup’

Qatar has made significant strides in terms of labour reforms in the past five years. In a region hostile to civil society interventions or criticism, Qatar has engaged with its critics. No doubt the World Cup was effective leverage to compel it to do so.

When we speak of reforms, we have two main components – in principle, what’s been implemented and, in practice, what’s been enforced. Much of our concern is with the latter.

The removal of the no-objection certificate [which workers required from their employer in order to change jobs] was by far the most important of the changes. It gave migrant workers an opportunity to tap into the local job market for better opportunities. For the first few months, the job change process was almost seamless, until employers started pushing back. Other parts of the kafala system, particularly the power of employers to report workers as “absconding”, were misused to keep workers in check, negating to a large degree the effectiveness of the reforms.

Advocates for Qatar keep arguing – weakly, in my opinion – that cultural change will take longer and what must be appreciated are the changes in law. This is not about culture but selective reforms that still give power to the employer.

The true test, and the real opportunity for meaningful change, will happen after the World Cup. The relentless – and, at times, unfair – scrutiny Qatar has faced in the last 12 years means reforms and reactions have been to primarily ward off criticism, without focusing on buy-in and behavioural change locally. As a result, the powerful business owners cock a snook at the reforms and continue unchecked with their exploitative practices.

I’d like to believe Qatar will not regress on its legal commitments post-2022, but if they are to be enforced, it will require dialogue at the grassroots level to show that ensuring the human rights of migrant workers and business profitability is not a zero-sum game.

  • Vani Saraswathi is the editor-at-large of the website for Migrant Rights, an organisation that advocates for migrant rights across the Gulf

Pete Pattisson: ‘The system is effectively still in place’

Qatar’s two flagship labour reforms are the introduction of a minimum wage and the abolition of the kafala system. The first is a scandal, the second largely a failure.

The minimum wage is the equivalent of about £1 an hour. This is poverty pay, in one of the richest countries in the world per capita. Employers must also provide food and board, or an additional allowance to pay for them. The food allowance is about £2 a day.

The abolition of kafala worked for a few months, but today the system is effectively still in place. On my recent visits to Qatar, almost every worker I spoke to said they were unable to change jobs, leaving them at the mercy of abusive employers.

Both reforms only came into force 10 years after Qatar won the right to host the World Cup, and long after most of the stadiums and infrastructure were completed.

That is not to say nothing has changed, but every claim of reform the Qatari authorities make has to be heavily caveated.

New workers’ accommodation has been built, but many thousands still live in squalid, overcrowded dorms.

The World Cup organising committee has introduced a scheme to partly reimburse the huge illegal fees workers are forced to pay to secure their jobs, but it only benefits a fraction of Qatar’s low-wage workforce.

Regulations have been put in place to limit labourers’ exposure to the searing summer heat, but the authorities have done little to investigate the sudden and unexplained deaths of thousands of workers. Countless families of deceased workers have been left without compensation.

The Qatari authorities and Fifa claim the World Cup will leave a lasting legacy of better workers’ rights in the country and the region. That seems unlikely. Some of the reforms have stalled even before a ball has been kicked.


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