August 18, 2021
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 and Part II.
Part III explores what fans and governments alike can do to demand change and help stop the abuse of migrant workers in Qatar.
Room for Reform
As detailed in Parts I and II, the kafala system has abused the human and labor rights of the migrant workers who are building the stadiums that will play host to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. As more details have surfaced about the exploitation and deaths that have occurred in the Qatari labor camps, the international community has demanded action.
Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international have condemned the inhumane treatment of migrant workers in the lead up to the World Cup. Amnesty International sent a letter to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, calling on world football’s governing body to use its leverage with the Qatari authorities to help end the abuse of migrant workers. Soccer teams themselves have also taken a stand. In the lead up to the World Cup Qualification matches earlier this year, players from Norway, Germany and the Netherlands wore shirts that spelled out “HUMAN RIGHTS” before their World Cup Qualification matches.
Fans have also been vocal in their opposition, with several supporters from around the world calling on their respective national teams to boycott the World Cup over human rights concerns. Norway’s football federation narrowly ruled out skipping the tournament at a vote held in June of this year. In the run up to the vote, Ole Kristian Sandvik, the spokesperson for the Norwegian Supporter Alliance, harrowingly said that playing in Qatar will “unfortunately be like playing on a cemetery.”
In response to these growing pressures, Qatar introduced a series of reforms in 2016 which eradicated some of kafala’s more brutal practices. Workers with indefinite term contracts can now move to another employer after working a minimum of five years with the first. Additionally, migrants with definite term job contracts can now sign new contracts with a different employer at the end of the contract period without the permission of their sponsor. While exit permits were abolished in the original announcement of the reform, the requirement of an employer’s permission to leave the country was reinstated a month later. Qatar also implemented a non-discriminatory minimum wage law of 1,000 Qatari riyals QAR ($275 USD) a month, plus a monthly allowance of at least QAR 800 for food and housing. To ensure compliance with the law, Qatar enacted swifter penalties and strengthened the capacity of labor inspectors.
While these reforms are certainly a step in the right direction, human rights groups are worried that they do not go far enough. For example, workers are still vulnerable to criminal charges if they leave their job without the permission of their sponsor. Furthermore, employers are still responsible for renewing and cancelling the residence permits of their workers, leaving them with a considerable amount of leverage over the worker. “While the new minimum wage will boost the incomes of some of Qatar’s lowest-paid workers, the level set remains low,” said Amnesty International’s Head of Economic and Social Justice Steve Cockburn. He recommended a regular review and progressive increases in the minimum wage to ensure favorable living conditions for workers.
Yet when it comes to human rights, talk is cheap. The true test will be how effectively Qatar will implement these reforms and how strongly they will be enforced.
While Qatar has said they hope to abolish the kafala system, human rights abuses in Qatari labor camps continue to be reported. If the rules the government has put in place are not enforced, then the exploitation of workers will only continue. This is where international attention is vitally important. It is only through global news coverage and pressure from international organizations that the Qatari government implemented these reforms to begin with. Now it is time again for governments, FIFA officials, human rights organizations, soccer fans, national soccer teams and the participating players to demand that labor laws be enforced. Without such a global outcry, kafala will continue to thrive, and migrants workers will continue to die.