01/10/2023, 20.42
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Qatar, World Cup, migrants and the missed opportunity for workers' rights

by Dario Salvi

Despite proclamations from Qatar and FIFA, little has changed in the lives of the workers who built World Cup venues and infrastructure. While the Kafala system may have been abolished, the reimbursement scheme is not working. For many, this is a time of uncertainty and unresolved issues. For Human Rights Watch, what remains is “a legacy of exploitation and shame”.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Since the end of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, little has changed for the migrant workers who built the event’s venues and infrastructure, this despite proclamations and promises trumpeted by Qatari and FIFA officials in recent weeks over labour rights.

For many labour rights advocates, the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 is still linked to abuses, deaths, systematic exploitation, and violations of the rights of workers who hail essentially from South Asia, South-East Asia, and Africa.

Ironically, the event ended on 18 December, International Migrants Day, amid celebrations for Argentina's victory and lots of proclamations but few real steps to end violations.

This was “a fitting coincidence given migrant workers’ indispensable role in making the tournament and the development of Qatar possible,” said Rothna Begum, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Yet, unless ”a remedy for the wide scale unaddressed abuses suffered by migrants” is found, this World Cup will “leave behind a legacy of exploitation and shame.”

Numbers’ game

An investigation by The Guardian published a year before the start of the tournament reported the death of at least 6,500 workers during construction. More died during the sporting event itself.

Qatar’s numbers are different. For Hassan al-Thawadi, secretary general of Qatar’s World Cup organising committee, “between 400 and 500” migrants died over the 12 years it took to prepare the event.

This is far higher than the “three deaths” previously trumpeted by Qatari officials, who quickly walked back al-Thawadi’s revised figure.

Qatar has a population of about 2.6 million people, but only 300,000 are Qatari nationals while the rest coming from Asia and Africa; about 20 per cent are in the construction industry with the rest employed mostly in domestic work (maids, babysitters, etc.) and the service industry.

Workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka played an essential role not only in the construction of the eight stadiums, but also in filling them, especially in the first matches, when few tickets were sold. India was one of the top ticket-buying countries.

Pictures of the workers who built the Lusail stadium, where the final was played, were removed from its walls just before the match started. Few of the 88,000 people inside were from South Asia.

"It is very rare that we can come out and celebrate like this," said Shafiq, from the Indian state of Kerala, who celebrated at the time while wearing an Argentina shirt. "Normally we all stay in the worker zones. We all wonder what will happen after the World Cup."

Kafala system and rights

The issue of the rights of migrant workers emerged immediately after Qatar won the right to host the World Cup, 12 years ago; however, after that initial interest, very little was said amid the indifference of the organising committee, FIFA, the international community, and the players and sporting staff.

The issue became front-page news again only in the weeks before the competition when players and others involved were belatedly asked to take a stand.

During the tournament the issue benefited from unprecedented coverage; migrants and families were able to tell their stories about stolen wages, seized passports, deaths, violence and living conditions that are tantamount to “modern slavery”.

It must be said that in recent years Qatari authorities have undertaken a series of reforms, introducing some guarantees to protect migrant workers, including changing the Kafala system, which dates back to the British colonial era, before Qatar's independence in 1971.

Today it is possible to change jobs or leave the country – at least on paper – without an employer’s permission. Workers who are forced to pay illegal recruitment fees, face extortions (ranging from US$ 1,000 to US$ 5,000) or are not paid the agreed salary can apply to Universal Reimbursement Scheme to get their money..

Still, according to advocacy groups, such reforms came too late and were weakly enforced. All past cases will likely go unpunished.

The Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund, which became operational only in 2020, is limited to wage theft. Accessing it is full of obstacles and it takes years to get a court ruling before workers can apply for payments, and it is nearly impossible for workers to apply after they return to their home countries.

In addition, the fund does not provide compensation for accidents or deaths at work or wage theft in the decade prior to its establishment.

An uncertain future

Since the abolition of the Kafala system, about 350,000 immigrants have been able to change jobs without incurring the wrath of their former employees, which in the past could mean the confiscation of passports.

For the first time across the Gulf region, migrant workers can elect their own representatives to management committees, helping them to raise grievances with employers. But trade unions remain illegal in Qatar even though they are allowed (with varying efficacy) in nearby Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain.

According to Ruba Jaradat, assistant director-general and regional director for Arab States at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), reforms in Qatar have been real and impactful modernising industry and improving the economy. The UN agency is engaged in negotiations toward setting up a permanent ILO representative office in the country.

Improved standards in Qatar can also lead to reform in the other Gulf states, including limits on summer time working hours when temperatures can cause heat-related death. In this sense, holding the World Cup in Qatar can be considered positive since it put the spotlight on workers and working conditions.

Today, migrant workers can report abuses like non-payment of wages to the Ministry of Labour. In theory, this is done anonymously, but there are documented cases of employees who were paid after government intervention only to be identified by the employer and sacked.

One of the most common violations is the practice of docking two days’ salary for missing one day, which can be expected given the physical and mental fatigue workers face.

Lastly, after all is said and done, what remains is the feeling that, with the World Cup, Qatar delivered a show to the world, except for the migrants who made it possible.


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