Civil society organisations and major media outlets have been on Qatar’s case for years. Since it was announced in late 2010 that the small Arab state will be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the projects for the event’s lavish infrastructure were launched, a number of investigations into the working conditions of migrants toiling away at the construction sites revealed a string of serious human rights violations.
Workers were found to be living in squalid labour camps where sometimes more than ten people shared the same room. Some said that at times they had been denied access to food and drinking water while having to work long hours in the desert heat. Withholding passports or delaying payments for long periods of time as a means of making sure no one would attempt to leave is also not an entirely uncommon practice among employers. But even if migrant workers who had not been stripped of their legal documents were willing to lose months of unpaid wages and go home, they still could not do it. What makes the construction of Qatar’s World Cup stadiums effectively a case of state-backed labour exploitation is the contentious kafala sponsorship system which requires workers to obtain their employer’s permission to change jobs or to leave the country. Despite strong pressure from various international actors and Qatar’s promises to make meaningful changes to this piece of legislation, the country’s new and amended labour law which will most likely not come into force until late 2016 leaves the slavery-like aspects of the kafala system largely intact.
Meanwhile, scores of labourers are said to have perished under these oppressive conditions. Earlier this week the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released a report predicting that 7,000 migrant workers will die at the World Cup construction sites in Qatar before the beginning of the tournament. Government officials have dismissed these claims as having no basis in reality and deliberately distorting the facts by factoring in the deaths of migrant workers across all industry sectors in Qatar who have nothing to do with the World Cup projects.
Even if the ITUC’s prognosis turns out to be wrong, it cannot be denied that there are serious problems with the way the Arab state has treated and continues to treat its low-paid foreign workers. Putting an end to these injustices, however, is not the sole responsibility of the Qatari government. Under the UK’s new Modern Slavery Act, British companies which have secured lucrative deals to help with the construction of the World Cup facilities must demonstrate active effort to ensure each of their workers, including the ones hired through a subcontractor, are protected from exploitation. As important as NGOs are in pushing for positive changes, these can be made much quicker and more effectively when they come from within businesses fully committed to eradicating modern slavery.