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. Read Part I here.
Part II investigates the abusive conditions that migrant workers face once they arrive in Qatar as part of the World Cup stadium construction project and how their legal status leaves them open to exploitation. It shows the darkest side of the kafala system and the desperate need for reform.
Kafala in Qatar
As described in Part I, once vulnerable workers in some of the world’s most impoverished countries have been entrapped within vague contracts by their predatory visa sponsors, they are shipped off to Qatar to work within exploitative and inhumane conditions. According to Amnesty International, there are 1.7 million migrant workers in Qatar, making up 90% of Qatar’s total workforce. Of the eight stadiums that will serve as venues for the World Cup in 2022, four are still under construction as of today. There have been more than 234 reported cases of abuse and exploitation at the Khalifa Stadium alone and countless more at the other construction sites.
The abuse that arises from this sponsor-worker power imbalance has been labeled “modern slavery” by many critics. But how does this power imbalance manifest itself in the working environment for migrants?
The standards of living migrant workers are subjected to when they are working within World Cup construction sites can only be described as cramped, dirty and unsafe. One Kenyan migrant, who requested anonymity for his own safety, stated in a Human Rights Watch interview that “ten of us were stacked in a stuffy room. About 15 people shared a toilet and about 60 shared the communal kitchen, which was built for a handful of people…water from the air conditioner was leaking onto our beds.” Because both work visas and residence permits for migrant workers are directly tied to their sponsor under the kafala system, many migrants are afraid to speak out about the conditions they face for fear of the consequences. Qatar has also arrested journalists who have attempted to report on the dismal housing conditions these people face.
Workers are also routinely lied to about the salaries they will receive for their labor. To make the work in Qatar more attractive for low-income migrants, sponsors will often promise much higher wages than is provided when they arrive. Furthermore, when workers tell companies that they were promised higher wages, they are largely ignored. A study from Human Rights Watch found that 93 migrants working for 60 different employers between January 2019 and May 2020 all reported some form of wage abuse. This can be anything from inaccurate wages to unpaid overtime.
Another harmful aspect of the kafala system is the difficulty workers face in changing jobs and leaving the country. Workers are often forced to endure appalling conditions as they are unable to change employers without the express permission of their current sponsor. To ensure workers do not try to escape their labor, sponsors will illegally confiscate workers’ passports, thus practically reducing migrants to prisoner status within Qatar.
However, the most egregious violation of human rights that the Qatari government commits occurs during the construction work itself.
More than 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the country won the right to host the World Cup 10 years ago. The last moments of these fathers, brothers and sons were spent undertaking grueling manual labor, under intense duress, and thousands of miles away from the people they care about the most. Devastated families are left without any form of income as they struggle to understand the circumstances surrounding the death of their loved one.
Ghal Singh Rai paid nearly $1,400 in recruitment fees for his job as a cleaner in a camp for workers building the Education City World Cup stadium. Within a week of his arrival in Qatar, he killed himself. Another worker, Mohammad Sahid Miah, was electrocuted in his living area after water came into contact with exposed electricity cables. Madhu Bollapally was a healthy 43-year-old man when he left his family in India. In 2019, his roommate found his body on the floor of their sleeping area. The Qatari government said that he died of “natural causes,” and his family were sent 114,000 rupees ($1,500) in compensation, barely enough to cover his recruitment fees.
These migrants died so the Qatari government can project an image of a successful and attractive country on the international stage. The World Cup has no real-world benefits for the people living in these circumstances. Liverpool FC Manager Jürgen Klopp has described soccer as “the most important of the least important things.” And yet, the government of Qatar, World Cup participating teams and soccer fans from around the world who will travel to the 2022 World Cup are actively engaging in a system which causes unbelievable suffering and death.