By Sarah Taupan. Image from sportsnet.ca
Gulf countries such as the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have become the primary destination region for foreign workers globally, and the numbers have been steadily increasing in recent years. The proportion of foreign to local workers in these areas are amongst the highest in the world. Many of these workers are manual labourers or domestic workers and suffer from exploitation and severe human rights violations. Transnational labour migration has become one of the most remarkable features of our globalizing world, with a network of over 214 million workers having crossed national borders to date. Migration within the Gulf states alone constitutes 10% of that and Saudi Arabia and the UAE host the 4th and 5th largest migrant populace in the world. Coming from mainly Asia and Africa, these workers seek opportunities in these regions to escape poverty and unemployment only to be met with hefty fees from recruitment agencies, long working hours, inadequate pay, and no time off from jobs that often differ vastly from the ones they signed up for back home. Many are caught in slave-like conditions, where they are unpaid and unable to leave their jobs. The UN estimates that 600,000 migrant workers in the region can be characterized as victims of human trafficking.
Furthermore, migrants are often unable to leave the country of residence as their employers hold back their paperwork. In most of these cases the employers will seize the workers’ passports upon arrival. There have been various reports of abuse, frozen wages, and excessive workloads. There are also documented incidents of psychological, physical and sexual violence. The visa sponsorship system (kafala), as well as the lack of labour laws, leaves foreign workers vulnerable to abuse. The kafala system binds migrant worker to an employer, who acts as their sponsor, this makes it difficult for them to leave or change jobs. If the worker tries to leave their sponsor before their contract ends, they will be considered to have “abandoned” their job. This usually results in disciplinary actions such as fines and deportation.
In December 2010, Qatar celebrated its bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In their groundwork, Qatar is set to spend an estimated $100 billion USD on infrastructure, which includes eight new hotels and stadiums, a new airport, and a transportation system for fans. As a result, human rights organizations have expressed concern over abuses of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, over 1,200 migrant workers have died so far while working on projects relating to the upcoming World Cup. The government has claimed to have improved working conditions for foreigners recently, and have allowed migrant workers to travel without their employers’ consent in September. However, these reforms are generally insufficient and lack stringent enforcement. Investigations have found that laws protecting workers from operating during the hottest hours of the day have often not been imposed. Additionally, they have found that employers continue to seize the passports of their staff, despite new reforms.
The reality of migrant lives is illustrated in a report by Amnesty International, which found that a recruitment company had been leaving workers unpaid for months. The workers they spoke to said that they paid amounts ranging from US$500 to US$4,300 to fraudulent agencies in their home country, leaving many in debt. This makes them scared to leave their jobs when they arrive in Qatar, and many are prohibited from leaving work sites altogether. The agents also promise fake salaries to workers, one migrant worker said he was promised a salary of US$300 back home in Nepal, but once he started work in Qatar, that number quickly dropped to $190US. When workers complain about their conditions, seek help, or demand promised wages, they are either ignored or threatened by their sponsors. Migrants who refuse to work can be delivered to the police for deportation, without receiving the pay they are owed. Some Nepalese workers that were interviewed have taken their children out of school or have had to sell land, in order to pay the debts they incurred for their migration to Qatar.
Many have called for the boycott of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar due to its slave-like labour conditions. Major concerns surrounding preparation for the games include the exploitative “kafala” sponsorship system; Amnesty International has called on Qatar to completely abolish the sponsorship system. Despite a few recent changes, the program continues to cause the lack of freedom of association, the right to form unions as well as the confiscation of passports; and hazardous working and living conditions. The program means that they can’t change jobs, they can’t leave the country and they often wait months to get paid, if they are paid at all. Meanwhile, FIFA, its sponsors, and the development companies involved are set to make massive financial gains from the tournament.