Qatar World Cup migrant workers toiling under exploitative labour standards

Written by Willy Fautré on 28 January 2020 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

When it comes to Qatar’s ‘commitment to reform’, we’ve heard it all before, argues Human Rights Without Frontiers’ Willy Fautré.

 Photo credit: Press Association


Ever since Qatar won the right to hold the 2022 World Cup, in more than suspicious circumstances, the tiny emirate has been under microscopic scrutiny.

This has primarily focused on their shameful human rights record, with migrant workers toiling under exploitative labour standards.

This month, reforms aimed at ending the system that allows such exploitation are due to come into force. However, we’ve been here before, with past pledges of change resulting in little more than hot air and broken promises. An endless spiral of shameful déjà-vu persists.


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Towards the end of 2019, Hassan al-Thawai, the head of the Qatar 2022 World Cup organising committee, promised significant reforms come January 2020.

He proudly proclaimed that “every person living in the country has the freedom to move from one job to another can live their lives, change jobs whenever they want and leave the country as they want”. Tragically, however, for thousands of workers they will never leave as the country remains their final resting place.

As of June 2019, the shocking death toll stood at 1,426 for Nepalese workers alone, the largest migrant community building Qatar’s state of the art World Cup infrastructure.

“As of June 2019, the shocking death toll stood at 1,426 for Nepalese workers alone, the largest migrant community building Qatar’s state of the art World Cup infrastructure”

Bangladeshis and Indians make up the other major migrant groups, who have tragically lost 149 and 1,678 workers respectively. Moreover, the Trade Union Confederation has warned that a lack of palpable action could lead to the death of more than 4,000 workers come the tournament’s kick-off in December 2022.

Sadly, even with a worker’s death, the misery doesn’t stop there. For the grieving families, post-mortems are rarely carried out while death certificates offer little to no detail on the circumstances and cause of death. This compounds their tragedy whilst reinforcing the emirate’s reputation of being able to sweep whatever they deem unfit under the carpet.

Perversely, it was recently announced that Qatar Airways, the tiny emirate’s national carrier, will sponsor the Nepalese Football League, which to quote human rights campaigner Nicholas McGeehan is ‘like Father Christmas sponsoring the National Society for the Protection of Turkeys’.

And for survivors, their plight has become more and more apparent to the wider world.

When speaking to Amnesty International, a Kenyan worker stated: “For five months I had to live with very little food and no salary. My family was really affected. Tears come to my eyes when I remember where we used to go to find food – in the bins”. These stories have become all too frequent and widespread.

“Recent revelations should not only throw shame on Qatar and governing bodies but those who remain silent on the catalogue of abuse”

The exit permit reform is largely a superficial change that ignores the wider problem of laborers lured to the country in the first place with lucrative false promises. In turn they find themselves subject to squalid living conditions, heavily reduced pay and working in unbearable heat.

The ultimate symbol of global sporting prowess is being constructed on the back of some of the world’s most vulnerable and maltreated workers.

There remains hope that the heightened scrutiny of Qatar’s labour abuses will see conditions improve.

While this may have been belied by recent failures to act on reform pledges, the spotlight should shine brighter and more intensely as the World Cup draws ever closer.

The responsibility falls to the broader global and sporting community to hold Doha’s feet to the fire about, implementing some of their promised reforms.

Recent revelations should not only throw shame on Qatar and governing bodies but those who remain silent on the catalogue of abuse. Human rights can no longer play second fiddle as we are reminded time and time again of Qatar’s ability to downplay the ugly truth.

As proposed reforms are due to come into effect, how can we be sure words will not continue to ring hollow and abuse not continue to abound?

About the author

Willy Fautré is director of Human Rights Without Frontiers (Brussels)

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