A certain irony registered on the calendars of Persian Gulf residents on Dec. 18: That Wednesday was both Qatar’s National Day and International Migrants Day — a notable coincidence considering the fact that 90 percent of Qatar’s population is made up of migrant workers.
As the host of the first FIFA World Cup to be held in the Middle East, Qatar will be bringing the tournament to a soccer-obsessed region. Indeed, Qatar’s leaders have promoted their bid to host the World Cup as a chance to bridge cultural divides, a friendly meeting of civilizations on the soccer pitch. In the words of Hassan al-Thawadi, chief executive of Qatar’s bid, “Qatar 2022 can be a watershed moment.”
Qatar will be spending an estimated $100 billion on infrastructure projects and $20 billion on new roads, and will be constructing nine stadiums and 55,000 hotel rooms. Beyond the grand ambitions, though, lies a darker side to Qatar’s World Cup bid: the institutionalized exploitation of workers from South Asia. The facilities under construction are, in many cases, being built by workers who are virtual slaves. Of Qatar’s two million inhabitants, only 225,000 are nationals; the rest are migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, brought in to do manual labor.
There have been widespread reports that thousands of workers are being abused and hundreds have quietly perished. The International Trade Union Confederation has estimated that, without urgent action to remedy conditions, 4,000 migrant workers will have died before a single ball is kicked in Doha.
An investigation by The Guardian recently revealed shocking levels of mistreatment of Nepalese construction workers by their Qatari employers. In addition to denying workers water and wages, some companies have taken their ID cards and prevented them from fleeing. Forty-four Nepalese workers died this summer, their deaths suspiciously attributed to “heart failure.” About 80 workers at one of Qatar’s most prestigious development projects have not been paid in 18 months, and they are starving. The dormitories in which South Asian laborers are housed are squalid and unhygienic, often packed with a dozen workers per room.
The abuse is not limited to Qatar; migrant workers face similarly horrid conditions in Saudi Arabia. Last month, a video surfaced that appeared to show a worker being violently mistreated by a Saudi man. Saudi human rights groups decried the brutish behavior, and the authorities promised to investigate, but nothing has happened. Unfortunately, none of this is an aberration for the gulf region, where attitudes toward brown-skinned laborers are overwhelmingly discriminatory, and workers have no legal protection.
Qatar’s enslavement of migrant workers is deeply embedded. Under the kafala system of company-sponsored labor, employers have legal responsibility for their workers. In theory, this should ensure protection from unfair treatment: Laborers cannot legally work more than eight hours a day (and five consecutive hours without a break). In reality, however, companies routinely ignore the law, confiscate passports and withhold wages.
Workers often sign one contract before boarding a plane to Doha, only to have it ripped up before their eyes as they are handed a second contract with big reductions in wages. Sponsoring companies must give their employees permission to move or leave the country. In practice, thousands of migrant workers — lacking education, often deep in debt, and with no recourse to justice — become their bosses’ de facto property.
While FIFA has been conspicuously mute about the mistreatment of workers in Qatar, only recently calling the emirate’s labor practices “unacceptable,” other influential bodies have spoken out. The European Parliament passed a resolution demanding that FIFA “send a clear and strong message to Qatar” that the 2022 World Cup should not be “delivered by the assistance of modern slavery.” FIFPro, the 50,000-member international players’ union, has stated that it is “deeply alarmed” by reports of workplace brutality in Qatar and has demanded that FIFA act.
Fortunately for soccer fans, there is still time to pressure Qatar to reform its legal regime and improve its treatment of migrant workers. A logical place to start would be to abolish the kafala system and to allow the free movement of labor within the country. Increased inspections and stiffer penalties for companies that break labor laws should also be introduced.
International pressure must be applied: The United States and its partners must hold Qatar to account in order to ensure that the prosperity that sports tournaments bring does not come at the price of workers’ lives. In Qatar, and across the gulf region, thousands of nameless migrants toil in the desert to provide their families with a modicum of opportunity. Yet they are treated as serfs rather than human beings.
“In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people,” Albert Camus wrote, “not to be on the side of the executioners.” It is also the job of Westerners not to be on the side of the slave owners. Who, in conscience, could enjoy the spectacle of a 2022 World Cup built on this modern slavery?
Omer Aziz is a writer in Toronto and was recently a Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar of International Relations at Cambridge University. Murtaza Hussain is a columnist for First Look Media.