Migrant construction workers in Doha, many pay to work, endure human rights violations, and may never get paid.
Migrant construction workers from South Asia in the West Bay area of Doha (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_rights_in_Qatar#/media/File:Migrant_workers_in_West_Bay_Doha.jpg).

Human Rights and the Qatar World Cup

As the World Cup kicks off in Qatar, the plight of the migrant workers who built the facilities enjoyed by fans and spectators is coming into sharper focus. Qatar required massive amounts of labor, and those workers often toiled in highly exploitative conditions.

In this episode, we speak with Michael Page, deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. We discuss how and why migrant workers were exploited in Qatar and then have a conversation about how the human rights community may better leverage massive sporting events to advance human rights, including protection of freedom of expression, LGBT rights, and women’s rights.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What Labor was Needed to Construct Qatar’s World Cup Facilities?

Michael Page [00:00:00] There are thousands of unexplained deaths that are linked to this building of the World Cup infrastructure that were absolutely preventable.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:01:37] Between the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the Olympics in Beijing, China, and now the World Cup in Qatar, it is clear that human rights are not a top concern by major organizing committees of international sports. And Michael Page offers some suggestions on what can be done to remedy that. So, Michael, I have been doing this podcast for a very long time and all the way back in 2014, I published an episode about the exploitation of migrant workers from Nepal sent to Qatar to construct facilities for the World Cup. I think the episode at the time focused on the nefarious practices of the recruitment networks in Nepal and the harsh labor conditions in Qatar. So, this has been a known issue for a long time. I’m interested in having you explain the construction that was required for Qatar to prepare for the World Cup and the labor needs that these projects demanded.

Michael Page [00:03:35] So when FIFA awarded the World Cup to Qatar in 2010, two things were very well known. Number one, there were serious labor challenges and there were not good human rights protections in place for the migrant workforce. And number two is that Qatar had a huge infrastructure deficit that really needed to be built as part of the World Cup guidelines, right? Because FIFA requires that we are expecting 1.2 million visitors for this World Cup. You need to have capacity for hotels, for moving internally in the country, an expanded airport, the major stadiums to host different teams. I mean, if we compare this to past World Cups or even the next World Cup in 2026, usually they’re spaced out across multiple cities, multiple countries, even: Canada, the US and Mexico are hosting 2026. So, it was very well known just how big of an infrastructure deficit existed in Qatar, which is a pretty small country, had not hosted anywhere near a mega sporting event at this time and people were genuinely surprised when they were awarded the Cup. And so that kind of brought us to this major set of problems of what we’re facing now, which is there were a whole series of abuses that migrant workers experienced because there were no conditions in place to build all of this infrastructure.

Who labored to create Qatar’s World Cup facilities?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:10] Before we get into the abuses that you have reported on and discussed in Human Rights Watch, could you just let listeners know, how was this labor found if their demands for construction was so great and available labor in Qatar, so limited? Where was this labor found? How was this labor found?

Michael Page [00:05:33] Essentially, this World Cup was built by this workforce of over 2 million migrant workers, and they come from a number of origin countries that include Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Philippines, as well as African countries like Uganda, Kenya. And so, they come from many countries and then they were essentially recruited to come to work for different employers in Qatar. They are recruited by essentially recruitment agencies. These recruitment agencies work on behalf of employers to bring them over to Qatar and it actually is a good example of one of the many problems that migrant workers face, even at the point of recruitment, which is many migrant workers pay to essentially get the job that they work in Qatar. And they often pay fees that are incredibly high compared to what they make in a monthly salary, and they go into debt for it. So, you often have migrant workers who are paying back, often with high interest rates, essentially the initial debt that they now owe for getting their job and that is illegal in Qatar. Migrant workers shouldn’t be paying for their jobs. But in practice, and like many other issues, the source of abuses is that there are unscrupulous employers that pass off those costs to migrant workers. And both custody authorities as well as FIFA has really failed in many instances to oversee and supervise and protect migrant workers from these abuses.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:13] And most of these workers are from Nepal and Bangladesh, is that right?

Michael Page [00:07:18] Yeah. There has been an expanding of the pool of where migrant workers are from. But certainly, in terms of, for instance, construction of stadiums, there has been heavy recruitment in places like Bangladesh and Nepal for migrant workers.

What is the Kafala system in Qatar?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:32] At the center of abuses of migrant laborers in Qatar is a legal framework defining the relationship between migrant workers and their employers, known as the Kafala system. Can you explain what is that system and how has it operated in Qatar over these last several years in the run up to the World Cup?

Michael Page [00:07:55] Right, Kafala, it means sponsorship. So essentially, the employer is the sponsor of the migrant worker who comes over. And in practice, what is the system? It’s a labor governance system that gives incredible power to the employer over migrant workers’ life and how they work. And it’s ripe for abuse. So essentially, the accommodations that migrant workers live in, the ability for migrant workers to change jobs between employers, the outside heat conditions or working conditions of when workers can or cannot stop. I mean, we are talking about the World Cup, just as an aside, you know, we’re talking about it now in November and December because it was essentially too hot to be held during the summer months for both fans and football players. But that concern was never shown for migrant workers who often built outdoor infrastructure in incredibly hot and dangerous conditions. And so essentially the kafala system gives all of this power to employers who have then exploited migrant workers in a whole variety of ways. Just to name some of the most important ones is, number one, they often just haven’t paid migrant workers what they’re owed, or they delayed wages for months at a time, if not longer. They’ve often stopped migrant workers from being able to change jobs and so we can imagine in the hands of an unscrupulous employer, that type of power is a huge problem. You essentially don’t have a free labor market. You can’t leave jobs that are abusive. Employers can even charge migrant workers or put the charge forward of migrant workers, quote unquote, absconding. You know, essentially, they can be charged even with a criminal offense if found guilty.

What is absconding and how are migrant workers in Qatar being affected by this criminal charge?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:49] So if a migrant laborer decides to leave his job, he can be charged with a crime of absconding, meaning that his decision to not show up to work is some sort of offense under the criminal court of Qatar.

Michael Page [00:10:08] That’s correct. An employer can essentially put that charge forward for Qatari authorities and the labor ministry to adjudicate but the fact that that exists just shows the kind of level of power and control that employers have over their workforce and even in terms of the reforms that have been had. A lot has been made of recent reforms around, for instance, this no objection certificate. Essentially, in the past, an employer had to essentially give what was called a no objection certificate for a migrant worker to change from his current job to another job. But even though that’s been rescinded in practice, essentially employers have found a way to kind of bring that back up. So just to kind of reemphasize, it’s very difficult for migrant workers to change jobs or to leave abusive situations.

How are migrant workers being abused for Qatar’s World Cup?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:02] Are there any specific stories or anecdotes you could share that are illustrative of the deprivations embedded in the Kafala system?

Michael Page [00:11:15] I think a good example is what happened in July and August recently. So, among the many restrictions that migrant workers face, it is prohibited to join a union to set up a union. Strikes are also prohibited. But there comes a time for migrant workers, as happened just a few months ago, where essentially, they reach a point when they’re not paid for months, where they have this choice between break the law and protest for what they’re owed, or face deportation or just face not getting any money for months and slowly not being able to pay back loans that they have to give money to send remittances. And so, you know, this is something that Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented even in the past few months, in which migrant workers essentially had to go on strike because their employers weren’t paying for them, and individuals were deported. They were jailed and then deported. And I think it’s something where it just goes to show the level of costs and risks that migrant workers face even now in a context where there are apparently or supposedly a lot of reforms that have occurred to protect them. Less than a year ago, there is the story of Malcolm Bidali, who was a migrant worker that was publicly criticizing the migrant worker abuses and problems in Qatar. He was forcibly disappeared and then eventually deported outside of Qatar for criticizing. And so that is the context that migrant workers are living in, in which they face severe repercussions for even just speaking out about the situation that they live in.

On top of migrant worker abuses, what other human rights concerns surround Qatar’s World Cup?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:00] Are there other human rights concerns that have been brought to light or have been perhaps emphasized in advance of the World Cup?

Michael Page [00:13:13] A general point to emphasize is very little of any of these issues that have been surfacing in recent months and years are a surprise. So just to give, from another context, LGBT people’s rights in Qatar are severely restricted. Human Rights Watch and others have actually documented, even recently as of September, LGBT people being mistreated, detained in some cases, forced to go to a kind of government conversion center. And this is something that people have been raising the alarm about for years, yet FIFA still decided not only to have it host the World Cup, but not really push forward on real changes in the country that would protect both fans and residents, which is changing discriminatory laws that exist. Among that, most important being, if you are found to have same sex relations or even sex outside marriage, you could face up to seven years in prison.

What could FIFA have done to prevent or stop the migrant workers abuses in Qatar?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:16] So FIFA does not necessarily have a reputation as being the most above the board entity. But was there anything they could have done in the run up to the World Cup to perhaps mitigate some of the expected labor exploitation in particular that occurred?

Michael Page [00:14:38] Absolutely. I think the most important thing that FIFA could have done is simply impose conditions or require basic human rights protections to be in place before the construction began or before a host was selected for the World Cup. I mean, I think it’s a broader theme for mega sporting events that are held in places with very serious human rights concerns, which is there need to be a very clear set of conditions that incorporate human rights standards before a host is awarded a tournament. I mean, it’s such a clear example in this case of when you don’t have those conditions, just how bad the reality can be. In Qatar’s case, there are thousands of unexplained deaths that are linked to this building of the World Cup infrastructure that were absolutely preventable and yet FIFA, only very belatedly tried to adopt a human rights policy like they have in 2017, and on occasion references human rights language. But even now, their language is pretty negative. They’ve essentially told football associations calling for human rights to be respected or calling for a compensation fund for migrant workers to say focus on the football or more colloquially shut up and play. We don’t want to hear it from football associations. So, yeah, I mean, FIFA’s not done a great job. I think maybe you could argue has done a terrible job, you know, in terms of for this World Cup, ensuring that the conditions were in place to protect minimum standards of human rights.

Why do big sporting events continue to happen in illiberal countries?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:23] So you just alluded to this, but there have now been several major sporting events held in illiberal countries over the last few years with the Olympics in Sochi, in Russia, the Olympics in Beijing, in China, and now the World Cup in Qatar. Each time there has been this discussion among human rights activists about the juxtaposition of having this major international event held alongside countries that are abusive to their own citizens and exploitative in a number of ways. Yet these events keep happening. I’m wondering if it’s a failure of the human rights community writ large, the fact that these major institutions, FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, keep awarding major events to illiberal countries that abuse their own citizens and impose all these human rights restrictions.

Michael Page [00:17:23] I think the challenge from a human rights perspective is that these institutions like FIFA have long been largely unaccountable to the base of people who they should be: Fans, footballers, football associations and other entities. This kind of global community that loves sports, that loves football is so distant in the minds of FIFA’s senior leaders when they are making these decisions that have billions of dollars on the line. I mean, Qatar has said that they spent something like $220 billion in infrastructure costs associated with the broader preparations for this World Cup. So that’s just a huge amount on the line. And unfortunately, your everyday football fan has not had the ability as well as human rights groups to influence. I think the real question is, okay, there now are human rights conditions, a human rights policy in place for FIFA, are they going to stay committed to that for the awarding of the next World Cup in 2030, which includes a bid, for instance, that I believe is made up of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Greece, where at least two of those countries have very serious human rights concerns that hopefully would be incorporated and reviewed as part of awarding any kind of hosting. And so, I think that is the question. There might have been delays in terms of human rights groups, really focusing on just how valuable these major sporting events are for autocratic governments trying to reputation launder their terrible image. But now there are some protections in place among some organizations, but will they respect that? It’s a question.

How can activists and human rights organizations make FIFA change their policies?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:28] Well, how do you make an entity like FIFA or like the International Olympic Committee, more susceptible to activist pressure and more responsive to human rights concerns? Is there a formula that can be applied?

Michael Page [00:19:42] I mean, I wish there was an easier formula to be applied because especially anyone who’s seen the kind of recent history of FIFA, it is one of general unaccountability for some of its decision making. I think there’s a few ways forward: at the end of the day, these are businesses in the sense that have human rights responsibilities according to the UN guidelines, business, and human rights that they should follow. And they should follow that not only in their organization itself, but throughout the supply chain that they are associated with. And that obviously didn’t happen for the Qatar World Cup, which is precisely why groups like Human Rights Watch have called for a compensation fund to remedy the very serious abuses that were preventable by FIFA when they did not do their human rights responsibilities to make up for the past abuses that continue on, particularly regarding migrant workers. But on ways to push them: I mean, I think the organization and coordination among human rights organizations, among migrant labor activists, among fan groups, among football associations that might have a better sense of accountability to their fan base, I think that’s really essential to try to bring more positive change, because nothing is going to happen quickly when you have organizations that were designed to be unaccountable.

Will the Qatari government address their human rights abuses?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:12] As the games unfold over the next couple of weeks, is there anything you’ll be looking out for from a human rights perspective that will suggest to you how responsive or not Qatari authorities are to human rights concerns, at least during the games?

Michael Page [00:21:29] I think there are several. On the question of migrant rights, I think the fundamental issue is will FIFA establish some kind of remedy fund, legacy fund? Will Qatari authorities support that in some form or fashion, either commit to establishing it either during or immediately after this World Cup? I mean, I think that’s a real open question. Qatari authorities have been very defensive on this point. They rejected a compensation fund and said, no, our mechanisms to provide compensation are sufficient. They are not. But I think at this point in time, they’ve just been incredibly defensive by the highly critical coverage based on these human rights concerns. I think number two is how are LGBT people going to be treated in Qatar as part of the games and what type of symbols are people able to raise or promote? You know, what type of safety precautions are going to be in place, I think, is something that people are going to be watching very closely.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:31] Like if a fan waved a rainbow flag or something in one of the games, that could be cause for concern.

Michael Page [00:22:37] The messaging has just been very inconsistent. There’s been this message from Qatari authorities, mirrored by FIFA, that goes along the lines of we welcome everyone, dot, dot, dot, but respect our culture. And the fundamental challenge with that is that what people should respect are fundamental universal human rights rather than any type of particular culture. So, of course, people should respect culture, but people should also respect the fundamental human rights of people. And that’s the challenge and the tension point when you award the hosting of mega sporting events that have, you know, 1.2 million expected visitors from all around the globe, and there are very serious restrictions on not just LGBT people, but also women’s rights concerns, freedom of expression, restrictions on journalists. And we don’t know how that’s going to go. I mean, just one other note is, I think there’s also women’s rights concerns that we hope are being protected. You know, in any kind of mega sporting event, there are risks of sexual violence, and so the question is, is that women who report sexual violence or assault in this context, will they actually face risks, as other women have in Qatar, of being accused of extra marital affairs? I think this is a real concern about, for instance, how Qatari authorities manage these types of situations when there are problematic or discriminatory laws on the books that affect women and LGBT people and many others.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:15] Well, Michael, thank you so much for your time. This was very helpful.

Michael Page [00:24:20] Absolutely. Thank you.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:28] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.