In this three-part blog series , McCain Institute Human Rights & Democracy Intern James Robson aims to discuss and analyze topics surrounding kafala: the conditions in the workers home nations that allow for kafala to thrive, the false promises, terrible working conditions, and entrapment that workers face once they arrive in Qatar, and the broader reforms and movements that are needed to help ensure that workers in Qatar are treated as human beings.
How Kafala Begins
The FIFA World Cup is one of sports’ great spectacles. Soccer teams representing their home nations compete in an intense multi-stage tournament, brining fans from far and wide to show their passion and love for the beautiful game. Although competitive, the World Cup is truly a unifying force in a world that is all too often at odds with itself. The 2022 World Cup, hosted by Qatar, is set to be no different with tickets expected to go on sale by December 2021.
Yet behind the glitz and glamour of the tournament, there is a dark underbelly of deception, abuse and exploitation.
In order to build the eight stadiums that will be used as venues for the upcoming World Cup, Qatar aggressively employed a system called kafala, or “sponsorship.” Kafala defines the legal relationship between foreign workers and their employers. Under this system, the state allows companies sponsorship permits to employ foreign workers from the world’s poorest countries such as India, Egypt, Pakistan, Philippines and Bangladesh. Kafala falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, as opposed to Ministry of Labor, and consequently, workers have no protection under the host country’s labor laws. This has led to widespread human right violations and abuse of migrant workers. Additionally, the companies who sponsor the worker also physically hold on to the work visa of the employees, making them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation.
When discussing the human rights violations in the run up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it is important to remember that the abuse does not begin with the construction of the stadiums. Rather, it begins in the countries where work is hard to find and where people are vulnerable to exploitation.
In the rural regions of countries such as Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, agents will search for workers and promise them high wages if they leave their homes and work in Qatar. These agents already have pre-approved work visas from the Qatari government and will offer loans to cover the cost of travel and accommodation for workers once they arrive, secured in exchange for their labor. Through this process, the workers can incur anywhere from $500 to $5,000 in debt, or the equivalent of 1 to 15 months of work abroad. If they do not pay back this debt in full, they risk confiscation of their family land back home, which agents often coerce the potential workers into using as collateral. A number of studies have shown that workers must take out loans from their agents at extortionately high interest rates (often between 30% to 60% per year) which only serves to reinforce the financial hold that agents have over their workers.
From a human rights standpoint, it is this egregious predatory recruitment process that is in most need of reform, but it is also the least regulated and the hardest to crackdown on. Weak institutions, high rates of poverty, and low levels of education create an extremely vulnerable population that these agents prey on and manipulate into signing contracts that their victims do not fully understand. In fact, 84% of workers said they would not have traveled away from home if they were informed about the truth of the situation once they arrived in Qatar. While reform can be achieved in developed nations such as Qatar, it is likely to be much more difficult in developing counties and remote locations such as rural Bangladesh, which is why it is crucial that more attention is given to this issue.
Many people who attend the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar will either not know or not care how the stadium they stand in was built. The responsibility falls upon the human rights community and soccer fans alike to educate the world about the terrible tragedies that went into the construction of those stadiums. In my next post, I will detail how kafala keeps workers from leaving Qatar once they arrive and the inhumane working conditions that workers must endure while they are there.