Guest post by Melanie Sauter, Member of the IAPSS Student Research Committee on Politics in the MENA Region
Ever since the 2022 FIFA World Cup bid went to Qatar, both the country and the FIFA face severe criticism. Corruption allegations in the bidding process, human rights abuses in the country as well as the unsuitable geographic location for such an event drew prominent media attention. Though the world wide attention has led to domestic reforms concerning the rights of migrant workers.
Special support for citizens
Before Qatar discovered its vast natural gas and oil resources that turned it into one of the world’s richest countries, it barely existed. In 1949, the state had only six employees. A weekly plane brought mail but sometimes didn’t even bother to land, dumping letters by parachute instead. Today, Qatar is the world’s biggest natural gas exporter. The roughly 300,000 citizens depend heavily on state subsidies besides being provided free health care and education. Most citizens are working for the government and are being paid some of the highest public servant salaries in the world. Yet, about ninety per cent of the country’s population are migrants, about three-quarters of them male.
The exploitation of migrant workers
Migrant workers play a key role in upholding Qatar’s culture of consumption. Migrants are not bound to the minimum salaries and a practice of forced labour unofficially prevails within the gulf state. Economically disadvantaged migrants are lured by agencies abroad. After helping them enter the country the companies keep their passports, making it impossible for them to leave. The wages turn out to be much lower than promised and the workers need to pay back their travel debts. Additionally, a practice of not paying the salaries on time or not at all is reigning. The workers live under precarious conditions, ten to twelve migrants are stuffed into one tiny room. Health care is, obviously, only free for Qatari citizens.
With decreasing oil prices the government is expected to run its first budget deficit in 15 years. When the emir introduced the new economic agenda for the following five years this October, he outlined a shift of some state-run health and education services to the private sector in an attempt to ease the burden on its finances. Yet, in the light of the FIFA World Cup 2022 going to be held in Qatar, the country faces urgent needs to fund major infrastructure projects.
How the World Cup made the world watch
In order to timely finish the large-scale infrastructure projects for the World Cup, the government yet again resorted to its huge migrant labour force. But this time, the world was watching. For the first time ever, the government experiences international scrutiny. Foreign media documented the suffering of Qatar’s many migrant laborers. In light of the corruption scandal connected to the FIFA bid the country already experienced widespread criticism. Both Qatar and the FIFA showed initial reluctance towards the popular complaints. In a futile attempt to calm down international protests, Qatar introduced the Wage Protection System last November that ensures timely payment of salaries. A visit form an official International Labour Organization (ILO) delegation revealed that the atrocious conditions for migrant workers still haven’t changed. Outraged by the ongoing reluctance to improve workers rights, last March the United Nations imposed an ultimatum of 12 months to end migrant worker slavery. Failure to do so would lead to an official investigation. Qatar would only be the fifth ever country to face a formal inquiry by the ILO into allegations of forced labour (after Burma, Haiti, Liberia and Portugal).
Eventually, the country gave in to international pressure. Next month, a new labour law is scheduled to take force. The so-called „kafala“ labour system, which places restrictions on workers’ ability to change jobs and travel, is to be replaced by a contract system. Even though many human rights organizations remain critical, it is to be hoped that the new law will change the reality for migrant workers in Qatar.
Promoting human rights through international events
When the FIFA announced Qatar as the winner of the 2022 bid, widespread outcries opposed that decision. Many complained that governments accused of human rights abuses shall not be „rewarded“ with high-level international sport events. Yet, as the example of Qatar shows, high-level events draw prominent media attention and make the world pay attention . That said, hosting events of international interests put governments under a lot of pressure that might eventually lead to a moment of change. Knowing that, international sport events could serve as a tool to promote human rights improvements in countries that are on the radar of the international community.
In the end, it remains a philosophical questions of how much value one suppressed workers life has. The infrastructure project for the World Cup demanded a high influx of migrant workers that suffered about five years of cruel conditions. But if it wasn’t for them, the world wouldn’t have listened.
Melanie Sauter is currently obtaining a Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Oslo and is a Member of the IAPSS Student Research Committee on Politics in the MENA Region.