The FIFA World Cup is a celebration of prowess and skill in soccer that brings the world together every four years. However, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, is at the center of controversy due to the country’s poor labor conditions and abuse of migrants.
To accommodate this massive event, The Independent reports that the small Gulf state is building seven new stadiums and renovating another. Two million migrants, mainly from South and Southeast Asia, have entered Qatar to work on these labor-intensive projects. Unfortunately, like many of the other nations in the Persian Gulf like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Kuwait, Qatari employers often deceive and abuse their migrant workers.
These countries favor South and Southeast Asian immigration because the workers usually do not bring a family, have a harder time organizing and are easier to segregate from the native Arab population. A Tennessee University report notes that the Gulf states weren’t always so hostile towards immigrants. However, during the 1970’s oil boom, the welfare states of these countries massively expanded and the governments became increasingly hostile towards the naturalization of immigrants. At the same time, the sparsely populated Gulf States were facing a labor crunch and needed millions of workers. This led to a significant increase in immigration and a sharp decline in migrant rights. Currently, excluding Iran, which does not extensively use migrant laborers, the proportion of foreign nationals in Gulf states range from 25% in Oman to 80% of the total population of the UAE according to The Migration Policy Institute.
All of these states have repealed the Kafala System in which an employer sponsors the immigration of an individual. The immigration process begins when a recruiting agency offers to bring a potential migrant to a Gulf country and find them an employer. This can cost as much as $3,000 for the migrant. If they can’t pay, the agency offers them a loan with exorbitant interest rates, which can take up to two years to pay off. Once the immigrant arrives, they will frequently see the terms of their contract drastically change and may not end up in the job they were promised.
Often under this system, the employer can hold the passport of their employee, and if the migrant wants to go home, they have to get an “exit permit” from their employer. In practice, this means that employers can prevent migrants from leaving the country due to abusive working conditions or irregular payments. The Economist reports that over 600,000 people in the Gulf are victims of human trafficking.
In addition to deceptive employment tactics, immigrants also face poor housing and extremely hazardous working conditions. Migrants are often housed in labor camps with cramped living quarters and poor sanitation. At the Al Quoz and Sonapor labor camps, outside of Dubai, the typical dwelling is twelve by nine feet and houses up to eight people. Furthermore, whenever migrants go to work, especially in the construction sector, they face the distinct possibility of death or severe injury. In 2004, 880 migrants died while working on construction sites in the Gulf.
Additionally, due to the heat of these countries the governments have banned construction during the hottest hours of the day, however, these regulations are rarely followed and correspondingly 5,000 construction workers were brought to emergency rooms due to heat stroke in 2004. Workers rarely have recourse since strikes and unions are heavily regulated or banned in all Gulf States.
The story of Muhammad Naseer best captures the lot of immigrants. Human Rights Watch reports that Naseer, an Indian national working in Bahrain, complained in 2009 of four months of unpaid back wages and a seized passport. This practice was illegal, so Naseer demanded his money during an arbitration meeting, and when his employer refused, he asked for his passport so that he could leave, which his employer also refused. Naseer then appealed to the Indian consulate, which filed a formal complaint with the Bahraini Ministry of Labor. The ministry retrieved the passport but stated that Naseer would have to go to court to get his wages. Naseer, who could not speak Arabic and couldn’t afford a lawyer, was forced to leave without his money.
Naseer was relatively lucky because his employers showed up for the arbitration hearing, which favors the employer in the first place. In Bahrain, if an employer is absent three times, the complaint goes to court where the immigrant usually drops the case. Naseer’s story demonstrates that although many of the worst excesses are illegal, labor laws are often poorly enforced and heavily favor the employer.
Although minor reforms have passed in all of the Gulf states the overall labor situation remains unchanged, which increasingly sheds light on the suffering of workers who built the stadiums in which FIFA will hold its World Cup.