Slavery and Splendour: The Underbelly of Modern Qatar

Picture of migrant workers in a camp in Qatar
Migrant workers in a camp in Qatar
Credit: thepeoplesvoice.org

‘A WATERSHED MOMENT’

In December 2010, Qatar won their bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. They have since embarked on a staggering US$100 billion infrastructure development program, which includes the construction of nine stadiums and 55,000 hotel rooms. Hassan al-Thawadi, chief executive of Qatar’s bid said: “Qatar 2022 can be a watershed moment.” But the chilling truth behind the preparations for this lavish showcase has recently been laid bare following damning reports by Amnesty International and the Guardian on the deplorable treatment of migrant workers.

THE KAFALA SYSTEM

Migrant workers make up 90 per cent of Qatar’s population and mostly come from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. They are employed under the state-run kafala sponsorship system, whereby companies exercise complete control over workers, whose wages are often withheld for up to 18 months. Workers are rendered powerless; their passports and ID are regularly confiscated upon arrival. With no legal form of identification, they are reduced to the status of illegal aliens and cannot leave the country until their ineffectual contracts have ended. The system is, however, only part of a wider network of migrant exploitation operating in the Middle East.

MODERN-DAY SLAVERY

In the words of Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International: “There is no longer a risk that the World Cup might be built on forced labour. It is already happening.” Labourers face appalling conditions, working for shifts which can last twelve hours with no food. There have been widespread reports from workers who have been denied access to drinking water while toiling in the desert, which can reach temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius.

The Dark Side of Migration, Amnesty’s official report on migrant workers in Qatar, states that workers are forbidden by Qatari law to join or form trade unions, in breach of the fundamental human right to freedom of association. Qatari law also states that it is illegal for migrant workers to be housed in districts where Qatari families live. They are instead herded into squalid labour camps and forced to sleep in unhygienic, cramped and sweltering conditions.

DEATHS

185 Nepalese migrant workers are now officially reported to have died in 2013, while records of deceased workers from other countries have yet to emerge. The deaths of these young and able-bodied men are mostly attributed to heart failure, an all-encompassing term which covers a multitude of sins. At least 70 of the deaths occurred in the final three months of last year, after the initial outcry following the publication of the Guardian’s investigation in September. It was then that FIFA president Sepp Blatter admitted that the situation was “unacceptable” but was persuaded that the Qatari authorities were taking the situation seriously and were “on the right track”.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE

Amidst strong outcry from numerous human rights and labour organisations, there can be no doubt that FIFA has not done enough to mitigate the situation in Qatar. The continuing flow of dead bodies being sent back to their mothers and wives in Nepal are proof enough of this.

FIFA’s mission statement is to “Develop the game, touch the world, build a better future”. There is a stomach-churning irony in the fact that the World Cup, an event which stands for international cooperation, is being built on a foundation of forced labour and the denial of basic human rights to foreign people.

It is only with increased pressure from the international community that fundamental change can be exacted. The kafala system must be brought to an end if Qatar’s migrant workers are to have any real chance of building a better future.

Lily Barratt

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