When Qatar won its bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, it was something of a surprise.
The small Persian Gulf nation of less than 2 million people was competing against several other bidders, including the United States, which had been favored to win. FIFA's decision, announced in 2010, will make Qatar the first Middle Eastern nation ever to host the World Cup.
Though the tournament is still a decade away, it has lately generated increased concerns over Qatar's policies on migrant workers. A Tuesday report from Human Rights Watch calls for a major overhaul of the country's work visa system, arguing that the many migrant workers in the country are subject to serious exploitation and abuse, sometimes amounting to forced labor.
Foreign migrants make up the vast majority of Qatar's population. Exact percentages vary; the U.S. Department of State puts the migrant population at over 75 percent. The BBC says they make up 80 percent. Migration News tallies the figure at 85 percent.
Zoom in on just the labor force, and the estimated percentage of migrants is even higher. HRW reports that migrant workers comprise a staggering 94 percent of Qatar's workforce.
This workforce can only grow in advance of the 2022 World Cup. Construction is a popular industry for foreign workers in this small Gulf nation, which was already involved in serious infrastructure development. And now that FIFA is on the way, Qatar needs all the help it can get.
On the Clock
There is much to be built in time for the games: another airport, new roads, more hotels, team camps, a better public transportation system in Doha, and nine top-of-the-line stadiums, all with air conditioning to beat the sweltering heat. The country will even gain a new world record when a planned thoroughfare connecting Qatar to nearby Bahrain becomes the longest bridge on earth.
For the most part, work on these projects hasn't yet ramped up in earnest. And before it does, argues HRW, the Qatari government has some work of its own to do.
Most foreign workers in Qatar come from South Asian countries such as Nepal and Sri Lanka to work in the construction and oil production sectors. Attracted by an abundance of jobs and the promise of a steady wage, many of these migrants arrive to find much less than they bargained for.
Current labor laws in Qatar give enormous rights to the employers of migrant workers, at the expense of the workers themselves.
From the Qatar Embassy in Washington's website:
Work permits may be obtained only by local sponsors. Employees satisfying certain criteria may sponsor their immediate family to enable them to obtain a residence permit. Holders of work visas require an exit permit to leave Qatar; however, their dependents do not require such a permit while traveling abroad.
This sponsorship program does not allow migrant workers to switch jobs or leave the country without the permission of an employer. This means that workers have little or no recourse when faced with human rights abuses; they are trapped in poorly paid positions where they must deal with dismal working conditions, long hours and endemic discrimination.
Workers' designated housing units are often deplorably subpar, with overcrowded rooms, unsanitary facilities and a lack of clean water.
Things aren't any better at worksites, said the report. Some workers told Human Rights Watch they worked under unhealthy and often dangerous conditions, doing construction work on roofs or high scaffolding without safety ropes, or working in deep trenches or enclosed pipes where they risked suffocation.
Laws exist to prevent abuse of the system, but many Qatari companies find ways around them. For instance, it is illegal to charge employee recruitment fees, which can saddle workers with heavy debts even before they begin to earn any wages. But some employers charge the fee via circuitous transfers. Employees thereby end up paying agencies in their home countries, and Qatari companies collect a cut of that revenue.
And although the law does not completely prevent migrants from leaving the country, employers often withhold salaries to keep employees dependent on them. Migrant workers who were interviewed by HWR report that their employers often confiscate passports altogether, which is indisputably illegal.
Increased oversight is the key to preventing these types of abuses, but the Qatari government so far seems unwilling to commit the necessary resources to this endeavor.
Faced with a surge of international concerns following the FIFA bid, Qatari officials have publicly acknowledged a need for change. The sponsorship program, for instance, may soon be replaced with a contract system, as Labor Ministry Undersecretary Hussain Al Mulla told a local daily paper on Tuesday, according to Gulf News.
The contract will stipulate the rights and duties of each party and will impose specific matters that the foreigner has to respect, he said.
But this switch seems to be more of a public relations move than a real change; al Mulla's statements seemed to focus more on terminology than on policy. He said the word sponsorship had been targeted by the media.
We need to drop this reference and replace it with the contract between the two parties. The word 'sponsor' is equated by many with slavery more than anything else, he said.
Al Mulla further undermined himself by saying that the contract program, like the sponsorship program, would not allow migrant workers to switch jobs easily -- at least, not without leaving Qatar and renegotiating a different contract from their homeland.
He added that the government would now prohibit employers from confiscating passports, ignoring the fact that such rules are in place already and largely unenforced.
Many have suggested that Qatar address the situation by allowing migrant workers to unionize. Leading this push was Sharan Burrow, the general undersecretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Last month, Burrow met with Nepalese workers who had left Qatar, and she was outraged by their reports.
I spoke to young men forced to work in 40-degree [104 degrees Fahrenheit] heat for slave wages. They were angry that they had their rights taken away from them the moment they landed in Qatar to start work. We need tough laws that give workers their rights, and protects their wages, conditions and their lives, she said.
She spoke with Qatari Labor Minister Nasser bin Abdullah Hamidi on Monday in an effort to convince him to allow unions for migrants.
But Hamidi didn't go that far. He did agree to a watered-down program whereby workers committees could be organized with the permission of the Qatari government. Burrow left unsatisfied with the compromise, according to the AP.
Clearly, more international pressure is needed in order to effect real change for Qatar's hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. HRW hopes its Tuesday report will help to change the situation by shining a bright light on the major injustices that are still regularly occurring in the small Gulf state.
The deeply problematic working conditions of migrant workers throughout the country mean that realizing Qatar's World Cup vision may depend on their abuse and exploitation, said the report, unless adequate measures are taken to address the human rights problems widespread in the construction industry in Qatar.