This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Since FIFA picked Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, the tiny and über-rich Gulf emirate has increasingly come under scrutiny for its failure to protect the human rights of its huge foreign workforce.
Qatar’s 1.8 million foreign workers—who vastly outnumber the country’s 300,000 native citizens—are frequently deprived of wages, trapped into permanent debt, exposed to hazardous working conditions and denied the right to unionize. Approximately 1,000 foreign workers have died in Qatar since 2012, according to Qatar’s government. Independent human rights organizations claim that the figure is even higher.
Amid growing international calls to pull the Cup from Qatar, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has promised new reforms aimed at safeguarding workers’ rights. It remains to be seen whether he is serious.
The large-scale use of foreign labor is widespread throughout the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, where traditional royal elites, businesses and private individuals have accrued high levels of wealth despite the region’s small domestic workforce. Bolstered by its natural gas exports, Qatar, for example, has the highest gross domestic product per capita of any country in the world. Through energy exports and financial services, the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—have also cultivated substantial financial reserves.
This wealth has enabled Gulf countries to invest heavily in massive new infrastructure works, but the region lacks a sufficient indigenous workforce to staff these projects. Additionally, many Gulf states provide robust social benefits for their native citizens, which decreases the incentive for natives to work in hazardous fields like construction.
Consequently, demand for migrant workers is substantial. The Gulf’s construction boom has been fueled by a massive influx of workers, primarily from Asia, who also take jobs in domestic work and other low-wage fields. These foreign laborers are driven to the Gulf by poor economic prospects in their home countries and the perception that a steady income can be earned easily in the Gulf. But many arrive to find a waking nightmare.
A key plank in the Gulf’s foreign labor apparatus is called the kafala, or “sponsorship,” system.
The system entails middlemen who travel to Southeast Asia and sell the right to work in the Gulf to prospective migrants. Once in debt to the middlemen, who “sponsor” the workers’ right to travel to the Gulf, the laborers are expected to pay off their debt to the sponsor by working long hours—often in the construction industry, where workers labor away in temperatures that can rise above 50 degrees Celsius, or 122 degrees Fahrenheit.