Qatar has been under fire for its record on workers rights not least since its 2022 World Cup bid came to fruition and a recent report from Amnesty International took note of the fatal impact of potentially lax health and safety has had in the construction of the stadium in the Gulf nation.
At the same time, the Arab pensular country has been ramping up efforts to protect migrant rights, likely an attempt to uplift its standing on the international stage and as part of a broader national branding campaign seeking to reframe the image of the state as progressive and liberal. And while historic abuses should be called out, there could be an opportunity here to raise the game for migrant labour and set a benchmark for the region.
The kefala (meaning ‘sponsorship’ in Arabic) system — notoriously controversial system that has been in use across Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — is a case in point.
A central feature of the Kafala system is that once an immigrant has entered the country with a specific sponsor or employer, they cannot change employer or leave the country without their sponsor’s consent.
In August 2020, Qatar introduced sweeping labour rights reforms, becoming the first and only country in the region to leave behind the Kefala system. In fact, Qatar has made a leap forward among its GCC peers in formalising employment and monitoring cases of underpayment and non-payment of due wages.
Challenges remain significant, as across the GCC countries, with workers still living in substandard out-of-town labour camps.
Doha has taken a significant step towards protecting migrant workers by passing two laws that could strike at the heart of the abusive kafala system. Firstly, the state has abolished sponsor ‘No-objection’ certificates, restoring the freedom of employees to leave the country at will. Secondly, Qatar has set a minimum wage with allowances for food and accomodation if not already provided by the employer.
Finally, Qatar ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and is now legally required to end workplace discrimination.
Such progress has been acknowledged by human rights groups like Amnesty International as movement in the right direction even while they remain critical.
Reports like that by Amnesty International are one of a number aimed at the country but the censure of human rights in the construction of the stadium fail to acknowledge that those problems are not Qatar-specific.
Work-place related accidents were commonplace as Brazil was preparing 12 new venues for the 2014 World Cup. In fact, Brazil’s last-minute rush to complete the stadiums triggered a surge in accidents. Similarly, workers faced multiple forms of discrimination and workplace abusive practices in the countdown to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, according to a Human Rights Watch a report.
Compare the number of accidents during the organisation of the Qatar 2022 events was smaller than the annualised number of accidents in small EU member state, like Greece, at a historical low point for construction, they are fewer.
Gulf states are extremely dependent on migrant workforce, with foreign-born population making up more than 80% of their workforce and Qatar is no exception, but these reforms now place agead of its neighbours, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
When Qatar was awarded the organisation of the 2022 World Cup there was a sense that the game could truly build bridges, as this was the first football event of its kind in the Arab World.
Doha’s 2022 motto is “Deliver Amazing”, and if reforms around migrant rights continue to uphold, these games could very well be the first post-pandemic sporting event of its kind.