A new report released this week by Amnesty International finds rampant abuse in Qatar’s construction sector, with workers involved in the construction of stadiums ahead of the 2022 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup suffering conditions that closely resemble, and sometimes constitute, forced labor and human trafficking.
The report, “The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s Construction Sector Ahead of the World Cup,” reveals wrongdoing within contractual claims and obligations as well as widespread and routine exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar. An accompanying report, “‘Treat Us Like We Are Human’: Migrant Workers in Qatar,” finds that these types of abuses are not limited to construction workers, but are systematic in other areas such as domestic work.
Among the key finding in Amnesty’s reports were abuses such as employers withholding migrants’ passports and the denial of exit permits, which forces migrants to stay in Qatar; the withholding of wages; squalid living conditions; and dangerous working conditions, among other offenses. Some migrant workers suffer all of these conditions simultaneously.
“It’s a great thing in many ways that Qatar can provide these jobs and these sources of income and remittances to developing countries and allow people to fend for themselves financially, but there shouldn’t be this sort of stream of human misery coming out of that,” said James Lynch, a researcher on Gulf migrants’ rights for Amnesty in Doha, Qatar. “It should be possible to do that and respect people’s rights.”
The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines forced labor as “work that the person has not offered themselves for voluntarily and which is extracted under threat of a penalty.” Amnesty found cases where migrants had been deceived about the terms or conditions of their work, or had pay withheld for months at a time, and were threatened with penalties including withholding passports, withholding permission to leave the country and failure to provide pending salaries. Moreover, in cases where migrants had clearly been deceived into situations of forced labor, they were also victims of human trafficking.
Lynch said that much of the exploitation is facilitated by Qatar’s Sponsorship Law, under which all foreign workers are subject. The law established a sponsorship system that effectively tethers migrant workers to one “sponsor,” who must also be their employer.
Under the law, employers have the power to forbid their workers from changing jobs, prevent workers from leaving the country and terminate their residence permits. Because workers cannot have their residence permits issued or renewed without an employer’s consent, employers maintain the ability to leave them effectively undocumented and at constant risk of arrest.
“If your ability to move jobs relies on your current employer giving you permission, that’s obviously going to increase your risk of being exploited,” said Lynch.
The exploitation is not just confined to the construction sector, but is rampant in other areas such as domestic work, farming and fishing. Qatar’s labor law, which passed in 2004, excludes several categories of workers from provisions protecting working conditions and wages, which meet the standard outlined by the ILO. The exclusion leaves women workers disproportionately vulnerable, as they make up the majority of the large domestic workforce in Qatar.
Researchers found that in many cases abuses against domestic workers ranged from their being made to work days that can go as long as 18 hours, being forced to work without having a day off, not being able to leave the house and not being allowed a cellphone.
“We even rang some recruitment agencies and just asked basic questions like, ‘should [domestic workers] be given a day off?’ and ‘should they be allowed a mobile [phone]?’ and the answer you get back from the recruitment agencies is, ‘it’s up to you [as an employer],'” Lynch said. “So that’s the effect of effectively leaving that sector unregulated. It depends on the goodwill of the employer. The result is it leaves domestic workers in a complete lottery situation.”
But Amnesty sees opportunity in the 2022 FIFA World Cup to be hosted in Qatar, as a catalyst for change. Lynch says Qatar and FIFA should “use this moment in the spotlight that Qatar’s got, where, instead of getting criticism and quite rightly getting that criticism, they can turn it around and take some bold steps to lead the way in the region and use the World Cup to actually get credit. So the spotlight will remain, but make that into a political spotlight.”
Lynch said that it remains crucial that the Qatari government begins to enforce laws against employers withholding passports from migrant workers as well as withholding or delaying payment, which is a step that can begin immediately. The other crucial change is to make a major revision of the Sponsorship Law, which Lynch says, expedites this exploitation. He also called on major construction companies to reform their contracts to put in place protections for migrant workers that will also extend to these companies’ subcontractors.