World Cup spotlight forces Qatar to reform despised foreign worker system

By hosting an international sporting event, Qatar opened itself up to criticism of its treatment of laborers. The ceaseless pressure has forced an overhaul of its sponsorship system. 

Fadi Al-Assaad/Reuters
Players of Iraq's Arbil soccer club throw their goalkeeper Jalal Hassan into the air, as they celebrate after winning their Asian Football Confederation (AFC) soccer match against Lebanon's Al-Nejmeh in Doha on Wednesday. Arbil won 3-0 on penalty shots.

Qatar’s quest to become a global player got a big boost when it secured the 2022 World Cup in 2012. The estimated $220 billion in planned preparations involves not only five new stadiums but also a new airport, extensive road works, a $24 billion hi-speed rail network, and countless hotels.

But that unparalleled opportunity has turned into a major challenge, as human rights activists, European lawmakers, and international media have excoriated the rich Gulf kingdom for its treatment of more than 1.3 million migrant workers. Qatar, acutely aware that its power is based on brand rather than brawn, has scrambled to salvage its reputation.

Today Qatar took a major step toward addressing global criticism by announcing the abolishment of its kefala, or sponsorship, system. Under that system, foreign workers were sponsored by their employers, who often confiscated their passports and prevented them from changing jobs or filing complaints if their working or living conditions were dismal. Now, the system will be replaced with employment contracts regulated by the state, which will punish employers with fines of up to 50,000 Qatari riyals ($13,700) per passport they confiscate. 

Today's announcement follows a number of initiatives over the past few months. Qatar has introduced new worker welfare guidelines, increased the number of labor inspectors by 25 percent, and moved World Cup stadium workers into gleaming new accommodations.

That follows a number of related initiatives over the past few months. Qatar has introduced new worker welfare guidelines, increased the number of labor inspectors by 25 percent, and moved World Cup stadium workers into gleaming new accommodations.

Some human rights activists describe the changes as only a small step in the right direction, without any guarantee of enforcement, and say safety standards are still lagging.

But many analysts in Qatar say the pressure that comes with hosting such a prominent event is undoubtedly catalyzing progress.

“Major projects, whether the World Cup or World Expo [in Dubai in 2020], are going to put the Gulf states in the limelight,” says Abdullah Baabood, director of the Gulf Studies program at Qatar University in Doha. “I think it’s a positive thing because now decisionmakers in Gulf states need to wake up and realize, ‘If we don’t do anything, we will lose what we aspired to – whether the World Cup or World Expo or Formula 1 [in Bahrain].’ ”

Counterproductive pressure?

Qatar is run by a tight-knit group of decision-makers, giving it considerable agility to institute sweeping reforms. But their efforts are up against a Miss Daisy-like blindness, entitlement that leaves Qataris ambivalent about change, and a sense of vulnerability – locals are outnumbered by foreigners by at least 5 to 1. While Qataris' elite status is unlikely to be challenged, that doesn't make them immune to insecurity.  

The government has to weigh the risk of social upheaval with international demands for rapid labor reform, says Zahra Babar, an expert on migrant labor at Georgetown University in Qatar.

“Genuine change or improvement often only happens when there’s a local commitment,” says Ms. Babar, formerly with the International Labor Organization. “Having a big international shaming campaign, if anything, erodes local commitment, because people feel besieged.”

She describes a bunker-like mentality across the country, including government ministries. “The doors that were open, the people that you could speak to are right now are just not engaging.”

Indeed, more than a dozen individuals, institutions, and contractors contacted by the Monitor for this story ignored repeated inquiries for comment or declined to be interviewed.

But one person who is willing to talk is Nasser Fahad Al Khater, executive director of communications and marketing for the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the government agency tasked with building World Cup stadiums and related infrastructure.

As a Qatari educated in Boston, he tries to put the scale of the challenge in American terms. “If you had 10 Big Digs happening simultaneously, what would happen?” he asks, referring to Boston’s 15-year roadworks project, the most expensive overhaul in US history.

Then imagine about 1.7 billion people – more than the population of China and the US put together – coming to America to help build those projects. That would roughly approximate the ratio of Qataris to foreigners today. Qataris make up 15 percent of the population and only 0.3 percent of the private sector.

“For a lot of us [the World Cup spotlight] helps motivate us to continue to address these issues,” he says. “But it is a double-edged sword. Constant criticism without recognition of signs of progress can be demoralizing.”

Higher productivity

Far from Doha’s dazzling skyline, men who live a continent away from their wives and children take advantage of their one day off on a recent Friday to wash their clothes in pails, cook goat legs over an open flame, or hang out on a battered old couch as the temperature pushes toward 100 degrees.

On every other day of the week, most of them leave for their construction jobs around 5 a.m. and don’t return for 12 or 13 hours – all for a monthly salary of 800 to 1,300 Qatari riyals ($220 to $360). Many spend years paying off debts to recruitment agencies and employers, who often pass visa fees and travel costs on to workers while paying significantly lower wages than promised.

“It’s gotten worse,” says Ram Suramat, a Nepali carpenter who has been working here for 17 years. He often works as high as eight stories up without any safety measures, but says it’s a risk he has to take to support his wife and seven kids back home. 

In a scathing report in March, the International Trade Union Confederation estimated that as many as 4,000 workers could die before the World Cup opens, although those figures were based on statistics of Nepali and Indian workers that did not identify the cause of death or place of employment. To date, no workers have died on actual World Cup projects. 

Suramat says his salary has almost doubled to 1,300 riyals from the 700 he got when he first arrived, but he says his Qatari employer doesn’t give him a stipend for food and has stopped paying for healthcare.

“They used to pay for medical bills, but now we have to pay ourselves,” he says, as two fellow workers each pull out faded cards that expired in 2009 and 2012, respectively.

Yet just a block away, on Street 23, another group of men lounge around in a gleaming new air-conditioned building, where their meals are catered in a tidy dining room, their sheets are washed once a week, and they can avail themselves of everything from cricket bats to wifi to a hotline for reporting labor-rights violations. While they also leave at 5 a.m. and work long hours, they make 1,600 riyals a month ($440), and their healthcare is covered.

The stark difference in worker accommodations shows that there's a business case to be made for treating the workers better. The contractor responsible for building the Al Wakrah stadium told the Supreme Committee, which issued new Worker Welfare Guidelines in February, that productivity had increased 11 to 25 percent among its workers – far higher than the normal variation of 3 to 5 percent. It attributed the progress to their improved living conditions.

“Before I spent two hours to cook, and one hour to do laundry every three days. We had to do a whole lot of work so sometimes we were tired and sometimes had to miss work,” says Santosh, a Nepali worker who now enjoys free laundry and three catered meals a day. “So now I have more energy for work.”

Broader application of new standards

Because the new worker guidelines apply only to World Cup sites, and stadium work is still in the very beginning stages, less than 200 workers are governed by those standards.

But Farah al-Muftah, chairwoman of the Supreme Committee’s Workers’ Welfare Committee, says meetings are now under way to establish common standards that would be more broadly applied.

“By us going for unified worker welfare standards, you're covering a huge majority of workers involved in the building of World Cup sites and the country's infrastructure,” she says.

The Qatar Foundation, which is building another one of the stadiums and was previously involved in major projects such as Georgetown’s campus here, has also been pioneering new standards and inspection regimens.

“There’s an acceleration of evidence that this is being taken very seriously,” says Gerd Nonneman, dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar, whose campus was built without a single casualty.

But while he says Qatar should be accountable to modern standards, it’s also important to have a realistic timeframe. “You cannot create all these policies and structures and critical mass of people to implement it overnight," he says.

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