The not so beautiful game

On Wednesday, the human rights organisation Amnesty International strongly criticised the British Government for failing to raise the issue of Qatar’s human rights record. The criticism followed a visit by Greg Hands, a junior minister at the Department for International Trade, to the Gulf state. In December 2010, Qatar was controversially selected to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Since then, the country has began constructing a new showcase venue for the finals. In order to build this venue, it has been heavily reliant on migrant workers. The working conditions, living conditions and contractual arrangements of these workers have been accused of violating basic human rights.   

There are thought to be hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Qatar assisting with the construction of stadia for the 2022 Fifa World Cup. The migrants are predominantly from Bangladesh, India and Nepal and are working on the refurbishment of the showcase Khalifa Stadium and landscaping the surrounding gardens and sporting facilities known as the “Aspire Zone”. There has, however, been substantial criticism of the way in which Qatar treats its migrant workers.

Working conditions

The conditions in which migrants have been asked to work have been strongly criticised. An Amnesty International report into migrant workers in Qatar found those working on the Khalifa Stadium and Aspire Zone are frequently being required to work for over 80 hours per week. Worse still, workers are being required to work beneath the sun in temperatures which regularly exceed 40°C. One Kenyan currently working on the World Cup construction told the BBC that:

Conditions on the sites are very bad. You work all day out in the open in extreme heat. You start at 04:00 and work all day. There is no cold drinking water on the site, just hot water. It is very oppressive.”

Qatari labour law requires a maximum working week of 48 hours over six days, and sets minimum standards for workers’ accommodation, medical care, and health and safety at work.  Yet, in practice, migrant workers are prevented from challenging their conditions. The laws allow only Qatari workers the right to form workers’ associations or trade unions, and preclude migrant workers from responding in any type of organised manner to challenge the practises of their employers.

The poor working conditions have been associated with a large number of deaths in Qatar since construction began. Estimates of the number of deaths vary. A figure of 1,200 has frequently been used by the media, but a BBC investigation found this figure represents the deaths of only Indian and Nepalese workers in Qatar. As a result, the Guardian has estimated that up to 4,000 workers may have died due to lax safety by the time the competition is held.

Contractual arrangements

Criticisms of Qatar’s approach to migrant workers extend beyond working conditions. The contractual arrangements that Qatari construction firms use both to attract workers and to regulate their work have also been accused of violating basic human rights protections.

First, Qatari firms have been accused of misrepresenting the remuneration available to potential workers. An Amnesty International report found workers constructing the Khalifa Stadium refurbishment complaining that the terms and conditions of their work varied significantly from those that had been presented to them in their home country. For example, a Nepalese worker reported that he signed a contract in Nepal for a salary of 1100 Qatari riyals ($300) plus 200 riyals ($50) for meals, per month. However, when he arrived in Qatar two months later he was handed another agreement in which the salary component was just 700 riyals ($190). In addition to lower than expected pay, reports have found that workers often endure late and missed payments.

Secondly, while workers receive lower than expected pay, they are also required to pay back significant recruitment fees. In the Amnesty International report, all of the 234 migrant workers interviewed reported that they had been required to pay recruitment agents in their home countries to obtain a job in Qatar. The amount they paid ranged from $500 to $4,300. Most of those working on the Khalifa Stadium and Aspire Zone reported that they had to take out loans from agents in their home country to pay these recruitment costs. Loan repayments in turn put a heavy financial burden on migrant workers. Workers can feel they have no choice but to accept lower wages than they were promised, poor working conditions and substandard living conditions, because they have large loans to pay off.

Thirdly, Qatar has attracted significant criticism for its practise of preventing migrant workers from leaving the Gulf State. Migrant workers cannot leave Qatar without their sponsor’s permission: they must obtain an “exit permit” from the authorities, approved by their employer, before they can clear immigration at the airport every time they leave the country. This has led to accusations of forced labour since workers have in practise been prevented from changing jobs and denied permission to attend funerals and other events in their home countries.

Living conditions

Qatari construction firms have also been accused of failing to provide migrant workers with adequate living conditions. Migrant workers who are working on the Khalifa Stadium and the Aspire Zone are housed in a number of labour camps, which  a number of reports have found fail to meet basic living standards. Most workers are currently housed in the ‘Al Wakrah’ camp, the main entrance road to which a recent inspection report found was dirty, flooded due to inadequate drainage, and smelled of raw sewage.

The accommodation was reported to be cramped, unclean and unsafe. All of the workers slept on bunk beds in rooms accommodating four, six, eight or more people. Inspectors reported that there did not appear to be any fire alarm systems or fire extinguishers. In many of the rooms where migrant workers slept there were gas cylinders, which workers said they used to cook meals. The kitchen and toilet facilities were rudimentary and dirty and were located in close proximity to each other.

However, in recent months there have been some improvements in living conditions for migrant workers. Two new labour camps have been opened which Amnesty International have reported to be of a higher standard. However, the new accommodation does not provide natural light to living areas and uses CCTV in internal accommodation areas.

Conclusion

Since being awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the practises of Qatari construction firms towards migrant workers have been increasingly exposed. These practises include poor working conditions which are likely to lead to the deaths of around 4,000 migrant workers before the competition is held; misleading contractual arrangements which prevent workers from leaving the Gulf State and provide them with lower than expected pay; and substandard living conditions. To date, the UK has been reluctant to publicly criticise Qatar for its practises. It is likely that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has instead chosen to try and influence Qatar in private. There have been some signs of improvement, particularly in relation to living conditions. But it remains to be seen where the FCO’s tactic of private influence will prove to be effective.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue