Qatar Announces Labour Reforms in the Midst of World Cup Preparations

Sydney Scott – Primary Contributor, Editor, and Lead Analyst following Qatar

Harrison Ritchie – Primary Contributor and Analyst following Qatar

Temesghen Naizghi - Primary Contributor and Analyst following Qatar

Planning for the FIFA World Cup in 2022 has sparked one of the biggest construction booms in Qatar’s modern history. There has been rapid development of stadiums, ports, hotels and mass transportation systems in order to host the influx of tourists to the country. This infrastructure boom in the region has resulted in increased dependency on manual labour.

Over 90% of Qatar’s population are non-Qatari nationals, which presents a unique labour situation for the country. Qatar’s labour force is overwhelmingly comprised of migrant workers, and there are currently few protections that workers can turn to in order to ensure that their rights are protected. The Gulf Crisis has complicated the labour situation further by impeding vital transportation for migrant workers.

The Qatari government has been the object of criticism for the harsh and dangerous working conditions of migrant workers as well as poor health and safety standards. Since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in 2010, hundreds have died in construction zones, sparking debate on human rights issues for Qatari migrant workers.

Migrant workers are managed within the Kafala system, which requires all unskilled laborers to have a national sponsor who is responsible for their visa and legal status. Poorly paid migrant workers, predominantly originating from areas of Asia and Africa, face exploitation by their employers as a result of this system of dependency. The arrangement is prone to corruption and has been likened to modern day slavery: employers often withhold wages for months, forbid workers from leaving the country by withholding passports, and engage in contract substitution by forcing employees to take on contracts different from those agreed upon before their arrival in Qatar. As there is no formal dispute mechanism for workers to pursue, employers can simply end their sponsorship and threaten deportation if workers complain.

In response to an ILO complaint against Qatar, as well as the country’s deteriorating global image in the wake of hundreds of worker deaths in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup, the Qatari government has pledged to institute a series of labor reforms.

Chief among these series of reforms is the Qatari government’s pledge to dismantle its current kafala system, which is used to monitor the status of workers in the country. The Qatari government has pledged to work with ILO officials to strengthen national labor regulations as well as begin to lodge all employee contracts within an independent government office. Additionally, the government will begin to settle disputes over unpaid wages and to establish a national minimum wage to ensure that workers are adequately compensated. Workers will both be allowed to leave the country and be free to look for new jobs without gaining permission from their employers. For all future disputes, workers will be able to turn to a formal complaint system within new workplace committees.

While these reforms would symbolize a huge step forward for worker rights in Qatar, international observers have remained skeptical that the Qatari government will utilize its full power to ensure that they are implemented. As there has been no set legislative deadline to implement any of the changes, it is unclear when Qatar’s millions of migrant workers will be able to take advantage of these reforms. Furthermore, prior Qatari efforts to abolish the kafala system in late 2016 proved to be ineffective in being a substantial step forward for workers’ rights.