Pressure builds on Qatar to end migrant labor abuses

The accommodation was being used to house old paints and waste materials, which were stored alongside workers’ bedrooms and the kitchen, October 2012, Qatar. (Credit: AP)

The United Nations has told Qatar that it has one year to root out and end the practices that enslave migrant workers, many of whom are in the country to build stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. If the country does not comply, the U.N. will investigate.

It has been roughly two and a half years since the Guardian exposed Qatar’s troubling system of forced labor, and a report released today by Amnesty International says little has changed. More than 100 migrant workers were subjected to human rights abuses while building the Khalifa Stadium, according to the report. The group said that FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, is turning a blind eye to the abuse and warns that the situation will likely worsen as construction projects ramp up in the next two years.

“The abuse of migrant workers is a stain on the conscience of world football. For players and fans, a World Cup stadium is a place of dreams. For some of the workers who spoke to us, it can feel like a living nightmare,” said Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty. “Despite five years of promises, FIFA has failed almost completely to stop the World Cup being built on human rights abuses.”

An investigation by a high-level team from the U.N.’s International Labor Organization noted some of the same problems. The body is giving Qatar one year to fix all of its problems. If it doesn’t, a commission of inquiry will take place, making it the fifth country ever to face such an inquiry. The rough March 2017 deadline comes just ahead of an expected peak in the number of migrants working on World Cup facilities.

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Amnesty specifically calls out European soccer clubs Bayern Munich, Everton and Paris Saint-Germain for using a facility in Qatar staffed by abused migrant workers. It is less about shaming them than it is to show how the problem touches every part of the support. That is why Amnesty calls on FIFA and World Cup sponsors like Adidas, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to apply more pressure on Qatar.

The oil-rich country relies heavily on migrant workers, mostly from southeast Asia. The 1.7 million estimated migrant works in Qatar make up more than 90 percent of the total workforce. Migrants pay up to $4,300 for the opportunity to work in the country where some then face terrible living conditions and forced labor.

Amnesty investigators interviewed 234 male migrant workers who work at the stadium or are landscapers at the Aspire Zone Complex.

“My life here is like a prison,” Deepak, a metalworker on Khalifa stadium, told Amnesty investigators. “The work is difficult, we worked for many hours in the hot sun. When I first complained about my situation, soon after arriving in Qatar, the manager said ‘if you [want to]complain you can but there will be consequences. If you want to stay in Qatar be quiet and keep working’. Now I am forced to stay in Qatar and continue working.”

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At the heart of the problem is the kafala sponsorship system, which gives employers total power over migrant workers. The system prevents workers from changing jobs without permission, and employers often withhold payment and passports without recourse for workers. Amnesty staff visited in early 2015 to conduct interviews and assess working conditions, and followed up earlier this year. The report shows that in some instances conditions did improve for workers, but abuses persist.

Qatar has recognized some of the problems, but lays most of the blame on the recruiting practices in the workers’ countries of origin. The practice of charging people for the opportunity to work is illegal, but it is widespread and well-known. Amnesty’s report rebuts the shifting of blame, saying that employers and the government know full well what is happening and do little to stop pay-to-work recruitment.

“Qatar has the financial means to make the real reforms, ensure safe work and decent wages, and the international community is ready to help when the government finally shows that it is serious,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, in a statement. “That day has yet to come, but the new ruling from the ILO should hasten Qatar’s realization that the world will only be convinced by real change, not by public relations exercises.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.