Even if you live under a rock it’s impossible to escape the news that Qatar is hosting the World Cup, an event that is currently drowning in controversy. From the bribery that led to its selection to its treatment of LGBTQ+ people and more recently its alcohol ban, the truth in what’s actually going on in Qatar becomes more shocking. A more pressing issue is how the Qatari government systematically violates the rights of the temporary workers. These are the people who built the infrastructure for the World Cup and who are currently working on other projects within Qatar’s capital city of Doha. I am going to talk about a system that the Qatari government has been honing for years.
Before I begin, let’s have a quick look at Qatar. In the 1990s Qatar discovered the planet’s largest known natural gas field. This was located on their coastline and consequently made them very rich, very quickly.
Although it fluctuates, only about 15% of Qatar’s population is actually Qatari. These 15% receive many benefits from the oil boom whilst effectively living in a welfare state. They are guaranteed high-paying jobs, free healthcare, subsidised housing and even receive money from the government for being Qatari citizens.
The other 85% of the population are migrant workers who have been shipped in from places such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Philippines. These workers are not classed as Qatari citizens, they are temporary residents and will eventually have to return to their home countries, this is known as the Kafala system. (Qatar has been said to have recently abolished the system, but the reforms are so poorly enforced that critics say they’re still effectively in place).
The Kafala system, also known as the Sponsorship System, is a legal framework in Qatari. This framework enables an employer to sponsor a foreign worker, provide them with accommodation and facilitate their travel to Qatari in order to work. The employment and rights of these workers are controlled by the companies that sponsor them and they charge high recruitment fees, this consequently puts them in debt before they even start working. Their passports are confiscated, they are subjected to wage theft from employers and their employment contracts and residency permits can also be immediately terminated for any reason. These reasons can include anything from leaving employment to work for another company and striking. This means that the workers are technically living illegally in Qatar and can be deported without pay.
It’s hard to put into words how horrible the working conditions are, they work in extreme heat to the point where their shoes fill with sweat, the conditions they are forced to live and work in are horrendous.
City Zoning doesn’t sound like an interesting topic because that is generally the case, but the zoning for Doha, the capital city of Qatar, where the vast amount of World Cup infrastructure is being built, shines a light onto further ways the Qatari government abuses the rights of temporary workers.
In 2010 a law was passed by the Qatari government which introduced what they call Family Zones. These zones were presented as a way to protect children and women, but in actual fact it is a veiled way to further exclude and legitimise negative stereotypes surrounding migrant workers. Family Zones are areas in the city where only families can live; no bachelors or single men are allowed to live there and in a few instances, even go.
This law has been described as vague, so much so that they only apply to men working in construction and not any other industry such as shopkeepers, barbers to white collar workers. This law effectively bans all temporary migrant workers from living in these areas as only single men work in the construction industry. The majority of Doha is designated as a Family Zone, apart from the Industrial Zone which is located on the outskirts, has very little travel infrastructure and is next to a sewage dump. This means that the sponsored workers are essentially trapped in the accommodation provided by their sponsoring company until they have to go to work, with shuttle buses provided to take them to and from the work site. Their living conditions are horrendous, they are packed into tiny rooms with little to no ventilation and the washing facilities are close to non-existent.
A report from 6 years ago details how 3 workers went for a walk in a park in the centre of Doha and were swiftly taken away by police. During this time the Qatari government said they were going to reform aspects of the Kafala System, but as I stated previously very little has changed.
Now let’s take a little step back and delve into the travel infrastructure of Doha.
Just in time for the World Cup, Qatar wanted to modernise Doha’s public transport system by building a metro to stitch the city together. They decided to build it in phases; the first phase to be completed before the World Cup and the last phase to be completed by 2030. This final phase is planned to link the industrial district with the rest of the city. Although there is no concrete evidence that this is a deliberate attempt to further isolate migrant workers from the rest of the city, it fits the trend of the Qatari government’s abuse of migrant workers.
According to a Guardian report over 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar from the five nations where the majority of migrant workers come from (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) since they were awarded the world cup in 2010. The same report states that 37 migrant workers have died directly building the World Cup infrastructure, although the real figures will never be known due to, at best the haphazard reporting of worker death,s and at worst a system that legitimises the dehumanisation and systematic abuse of workers’ rights by the Qatari government. These people came to Qatar in an attempt to provide for their families and communities, with the promise of fair paid work that was unavailable to them in their home countries and the reward for this labour was death. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
Most of the oil produced by Qatar has been bought up by Asian markets, but since the advent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe has been seeking to buy oil from elsewhere. Germany, in a move to limit its dependence on Russian oil, has turned to Qatar oil for help. If the rest of Europe mirrors this move, it will only legitimise Qatari treatment of its workers and the litany of other abuses of human rights it enacts. It is down to us to put pressure on our governments to not do business with regimes that act in this way. No amount of condemnation from world governments will change anything; it’s when the money stops flowing that things might begin to change.