In the shadow of the World Cup: Slavery and human rights abuses in Qatar
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In the shadow of the World Cup: Slavery and human rights abuses in Qatar

AN OIL state with a small native population (under 300,000), an advanced media and a high level of political stability, the Southwest Asian country of Qatar is by far the richest country in the world, according to per capita GDP. As the world’s leading exporter of natural gas, its legal citizens enjoy a high standard of living and pay no income tax.

Yet 86 percent of Qatar’s population and 94 percent of its workforce is made up of migrant workers, largely from South Asia, the Philippines and Egypt. These politically invisible residents of the tiny Middle Eastern kingdom do not enjoy the rights, wealth and lifestyle afforded to native Qataris. Mostly servants and low-skilled laborers, the vast majority of Qatar’s population is subject to physical and mental abuse at the hands of their native employers, plus the withholding of pay, capricious imprisonment, confiscation of passports, restriction of travel and movement, sexual assault and involuntary servitude.

These are the slaves of Qatar, host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup football championship.

A region of wealth and exploitation

Like its neighbor Dubai, citizens of Qatar have benefitted vastly from the country’s newfound wealth and exploited the large amount of cheap labor available in poor South Asian and Southeast Asian countries. Migrants from these regions, desperate for work, risk everything in order to earn meager wages in Qatar, often at the forfeit of their most basic human rights.

The announcement in December 2010 that Qatar would host the World Cup meant that many stadia and infrastructure would need to be built. The need of cheap migrant labor was greater than ever. The plight of Qatar’s 2 million foreign workers, mostly from India, Nepal, the Philippines, Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan (in descending order of population) soon came under unprecedented scrutiny in the international media.

After negative press surrounding human rights violations and the 2022 World Cup, in May 2014 Qatar announced a series of labor reforms, though these reforms have been deemed inadequate and toothless by human rights groups.

From Human Rights Watch:

Qatar’s Law 14 of 2004, regulating labor in the private sector, limits workers’ hours, requires that foreign workers receive paid annual leave, sets requirements on health and safety, and requires on-time payment of wages each month. In practice, employers continue to flout these requirements with impunity due to the failure of the authorities to enforce this and other laws intended to protect workers’ rights.

A recent report by Amnesty International exposed how Nepali and Indian construction workers at Khalifa stadium in Doha, Qatar were treated by their employers: housed in abysmal conditions, passports withheld and prohibited from leaving the country. In response, to the report, organizers of the World Cup in Qatar, the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, told Qatar-based Al Jazeera media that the conditions revealed by Amnesty International were not representative of the entire workforce at Khalifa. Furthermore, Qatar’s Government Communications Office, while expressing concerns about the allegations in the Amnesty report, claimed that many points had already been addressed.

Damning 2022 World Cup statistics

As of 2014, 400 Nepali workers had died working on World Cup projects since 2010 and 500 Indian citizens since 2012. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, 1,200 migrants had died in Qatar since the country was awarded the World Cup.

Part of what is so shocking is that in such a wealthy state that provides so much for its citizens, such deaths and abuses are totally avoidable. Yet Qatar is a place of stark contrasts: rich Qataris vs. poor migrants, Sharia law vs. a relatively free media (Al Jazeera). The international community, as well as FIFA, should pressure the Qatari government in order to help the plight of the kingdom’s migrant workers.