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World Cup puts spotlight on rights of migrant workers in Qatar

By Susan Kneebone


As recent demonstrations in Brazil around the staging of the FIFA 2014 World Soccer Cup show, major sporting events put the spotlight on human rights issues in host countries. In the case of Qatar the preparations to host the FIFA 2022 World Cup are focussing worldwide attention on the plight of migrant workers. It estimated that the country needs an extra 500,000 migrant workers to build stadiums and other infrastructure such as a metro system in the lead up to the World Cup. But a report by the International Trade Union Commission (ITUC) predicts that 4,000 migrant construction workers will die in Qatar before the start of the game.

As for much of the Gulf States region, Qatar is heavily dependent on migrant workers. It has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world, with migrant workers making up approximately 88 per cent of the whole population. The majority of migrant workers come from South and South-East Asian countries: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. A series of reports has revealed poor working conditions for migrant workers in Qatar particularly in the construction industry and in domestic workplaces and a lack of enforcement of existing protective legal mechanisms.

This situation highlights the global issue of exploitation of low and unskilled temporary migrant workers, also labelled as “foreign workers”. Currently, there are about 232 million migrants globally, of whom it is estimated that 105 million are migrant workers who are displaced by necessity in a labour market which reflects the increasing disparity between rich and poor countries. Unskilled temporary migrant workers are vulnerable because they have no choice but to migrate to work. Such workers are constructed in laws and policies as lacking connection to the host state but rather the responsibility of their home state. They are discriminated in the host state on the basis of their culture and identity, and often regarded as ‘export’ labour at home.

Builders at Work: There are close to one million migrant workers in Qatar, mainly from South Asia. The majority work in construction. Photo by WBUR Boston's NPR News Station. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via wbur Flickr.
Builders at Work: There are close to one million migrant workers in Qatar, mainly from South Asia. The majority work in construction. Photo by WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via WBUR Flickr.

The Kafala sponsorship system which operates in Qatar is a symptom of such vulnerability. The Kafala system reduces migrant workers to the status of slaves or indentured property in host country. This system is used to regulate the relationship between employers and migrants, with a work permit linked to a single person, who is often the sponsor. The law provides power and authority to sponsors to prevent migrant workers from changing employers and from the leaving Qatar.

As the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau summaries:

The kafala system enables unscrupulous employers to exploit employees. Frequent cases of abuse against migrants include the confiscation of passports, refusal to give “no objection” certificates (allowing migrants to change employer) or exit permits and refusal to pay migrants’ plane tickets to return home. Some employers do not extend residence permits for their employees, often because of the fees incurred. This leads to migrants ending up in an irregular situation, with no valid identity card, despite the fact that they are regularly employed. [7]

The recruitment process and charging of excessive fees are other critical issues. Recruitment fees are forbidden by Qatari law, but the reports found that many migrant workers had taken out substantial loans to pay the fees in their home countries and were in long-term debt. Contract substitution is also a huge problem, as the terms of contracts signed in the home countries are often different upon arrival in Qatar, usually with a lower salary and different job description. As migrant workers cannot easily change jobs without the sponsor’s approval and often have recruitment loans to repay, they become highly vulnerable to abuse and less likely to report such violations. In many cases, such practices will amount to human trafficking for labour exploitation or forced labour as the Amnesty International Report, “My Sleep is My Break” explains (pp54-60).

The exploitation of “foreign” migrant workers suggests that we have created a new global form of ‘indentured servitude’ or slavery in which others exercise property-like powers or control over individuals. The irony is that the development of individual rights to free and decent working conditions in the nineteenth century ran parallel to the anti-slavery movement. Qatar 2022 offers an opportunity to Qatar to show the global community the need to recognise collective responsibility for migrant workers in a globalised economy, and to put pressure on states and non-state actors to respect the rights of migrant workers.

Dr Susan Kneebone (PhD, MA (Asian Studies), Dip Ed, LLB), is a Professor in the Faculty of Law, Monash University, Australia. She is the author of many articles and book chapters, including author \ editor of the following: Transnational Crime and Human Rights: Responses to Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Subregion (Routledge 2012) (co-authored with Julie Debeljak) ; Migrant Workers Between States: In Search of Exit and Integration Strategies in South East Asia 40 (4) Asian Journal of Social Sciences (2012) ; “Transnational Labour Migrants: Whose Responsibility?” in Fiona Jenkins, Mark Nolan and Kim Rubenstein eds, Allegiance and Identity in a Globalised World (Cambridge University Press, 2014 – in press) Chapter 18. Recent publications include: “ASEAN and the Conceptualisation of Refugee protection” in Abass A. and Ippolito, F., et al eds., Regional Approaches to the Protection of Asylum Seekers: An International Legal Perspective (Ashgate 2014) Chapter 13, pp295-324 ; “The Bali Process and Global Refugee Policy in the Asia-Pacific Region” Special Edition of the Journal of Refugee Studies on Global Refugee Policy, 2014.

Interested in learning more about the issues facing migrant workers? Oxford Journals has created a special World Refugee Day virtual issue with a selection of free articles.

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