By the Blouin News World staff

World Cup shines light on Qatar’s migrant labor problem

by in Asia-Pacific, Europe, Middle East.

Foreign workers in Doha, Qatar, October 24, 2010. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Foreign workers in Doha, Qatar, October 24, 2010. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

If there wasn’t already enough controversy around Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022, this week’s shocking report from the Guardian on the appalling treatment of the migrant workers tasked with preparing the country’s infrastructure guarantees an uproar around the sporting event that is sure to rival that of the Sochi Olympics.

Both sporting events are going a long way towards challenging the idea that these types of prestigious hosting gigs help to boost a country’s international image. So far, they’ve done quite the opposite for Russia and Qatar, shining a light on domestic issues and magnifying them for an international audience. Prominent among coverage of Sochi is Russia’s disheartening record on gay rights and the controversy over its gay propaganda legislation (along with the Putin government’s other repressive measures). Qatar can look forward to something similar. The stark details of the exploitation as exposed by the Guardian report paint a picture that the event’s organizers — and the Qatari government more broadly — will have a difficult time brushing away:

This summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of laborers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery…

Some workers on other sites say employers routinely confiscate passports and refuse to issue ID cards, in effect reducing them to the status of illegal aliens…

Some labourers say they have been denied access to free drinking water in the desert heat…

Though the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee has already tried to shift the blame by putting responsibility for these abuses on contractors and subcontractors, Qatari authorities are not readily absolved here. The broader legal structures that enable this sort of systemic abuse of migrant labor — in particular the Kafala sponsorship system — is without a doubt the state’s responsibility.

While human-rights activists can take heart that such high-profile events like the World Cup are attracting international attention to these issues, there is no sign that the increased scrutiny on Qatar will do much beyond perhaps prompting a few cosmetic changes — or even extend past the expiration date of these games. (Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics inspired similar outcries across the globe that largely evaporated once the games wrapped up.) Though the ruling Al-Thani royal family may be reeling from the PR setback, expecting them to overhaul the system responsible for building up their tiny Gulf state in the first place is unrealistic.

But international condemnation could have an effect regardless — not on Qatar directly, but through the Southeast Asian countries providing the Gulf nation with its labor. As the country with single highest ratio of migrants to citizens (with a native population of just over 220,000), Qatar’s dependence on migrant labor is vast, and if enough pressure builds on governments like Nepal’s to put concrete demands on Doha, perhaps only then can the system begin to be overhauled. If, however, the Al-Thani’s borrow a page from Putin’s playbook and remain impervious to these calls, FIFA, like the IOC, will be responsible for rewarding yet another regime nakedly responsible for glaring human rights abuses.