Still Struggling: Migrant Construction Workers in Qatar During the Pandemic
“While Qatar has made more reform promises than other Gulf countries, it has not followed through fully on many of its commitments.”
Qatar has relied on hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from South Asia to build the stadiums, highways, and other infrastructure needed for the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament, which the Arabian Gulf emirate will host in November. In addition to the historic hardships facing migrant laborers in the Middle East, Qatar’s foreign workforce has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, beginning in early 2020.
This report uses Qatar as a case study to examine how the global public health crisis affected destitute migrants in the Middle East and how employers and the government responded. It also makes a series of reform recommendations that would promote human rights by improving workers’ economic and living conditions.
The report’s central findings are twofold: After a slow start, the government of Qatar provided migrant workers with free, adequate healthcare in response to the pandemic. But foreign laborers suffered economically as a result of construction delays, wage reductions, terminated contracts, and deportations. The contrast between the government’s vigorous public health campaign and its failure to protect workers’ livelihoods is key. Qatar should address migrants’ economic needs with the same energy and resourcefulness illustrated by its efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19.
The handling of recruitment fees provides an example of how migrant workers in Qatar and the rest of the Middle East continue to be economically exploited. International labor law requires that employers cover costs associated with the recruitment and transportation of foreign workers. Qatari law is more ambiguous, however. In general, it prohibits charging migrant workers for their own recruitment but doesn’t specify that employers should cover these costs. Under special worker-welfare standards established for World Cup stadium projects, construction companies are supposed to pay for recruitment. And key arms of the government that hire such companies have pledged to ensure that the contractors fulfill this responsibility. As a result, the percentage of foreign workers helping to build World Cup stadiums who have paid for their own recruitment has diminished over the last several years, according to surveys funded by the government.
But in the absence of a clear legal mandate and active government enforcement, most companies still do not pay for recruitment, and an overwhelming majority of migrants continue to shoulder this financial burden. This shifting of costs to workers forces many of them to borrow at high interest rates to pay recruiting agencies in their home countries. The debts can amount to as much as a year’s wages and divert funds laborers otherwise would send home to their families. Migrant workers desperate to maintain their salaries are more vulnerable to exploitation by employers, all the more so during the pandemic, when some companies reduced or delayed wages.
Qatar has failed to institute the most obvious solution for the recruitment fee issue: explicitly mandating that employers cover all costs and penalizing those companies that defy the mandate. The government still has time before the World Cup to ensure that the tournament leaves a legacy of improved worker welfare. Here, in capsule form, are recommendations to the government, employers, and World Cup sponsors, which we explain in more detail in Part Three.
Recommendations in the Brief:
For the Qatari Government
- Enforce existing worker standards covering those hired for FIFA World Cup projects. As a starting point, the government should require construction firms to compensate workers for all recruitment costs and the full amount of wages lost during the pandemic.
- Broaden worker-protection rules to all categories of migrant workers, expand inspections of employers, and impose meaningful penalties against non-compliant firms. The first step to supporting workers across sectors would be to enact a clearly stated law mandating employer responsibility for recruitment costs. The law should require that government-affiliated agencies accept only those contractor bids that fully account for the cost of recruitment, wages, and decent accommodation.
- Invest in digitizing the recruitment process and expand the role of government-funded visa centers in labor-sending countries. This process should also generate reliable records that the government could use to assure compliance with its laws and deter corruption.
- Make bidding for government projects and contract implementation public. Greater transparency would give civil society organizations and workers themselves more of a basis for advocating for fair treatment by employers and the government.
For Construction Companies
- Cover all expenses related to the recruitment of current and future low-wage migrant workers and reimburse those who were charged fees in the past or denied wages during the pandemic. Employers need to treat the payment of recruitment fees as a routine cost of doing business, no different from the payment of wages.
- Pay for vastly improved accommodations for migrant employees. This would be the humane approach in general, and, more specifically, it would decrease the impact of any future contagious disease outbreaks.
For the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), Corporate Sponsors of the World Cup, and National Football Teams
- In the months leading up to the World Cup in November, FIFA should make a concerted effort to persuade the Qatari government to require that construction firms pay all recruitment fees, as well as provide fair compensation, decent accommodations, and safe working conditions. For their part, the commercial sponsors of the World Cup also should adopt a common strategy for raising these issues collectively with the Qatari government. In a year when people across the globe will pay attention to Qatar, national teams that compete for the World Cup also can help generate greater public concern about these matters.
“Throughout the Gulf of Arabia Region there is a striking contrast between the extraordinary wealth of the energy-producing societies that rely on imported labor and the destitution of foreign workers.”
In 2010, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) named the Arab Gulf nation of Qatar the host of the 2022 World Cup—the first time a Middle Eastern country enjoyed the honor. But on their own, Qatar’s 330,000 citizens were in no position to build the stadiums, highways, hotels, and railway line needed for global soccer championships expected to draw more than one million visitors in November 2022.
As a result, Qatar and the construction companies it hired for this $200 billion undertaking turned to the human resource that has built much of the modern Middle East: migrant labor. At present, more than two million foreign workers, primarily from India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, are employed in Qatar. Nearly half work on construction projects, many of which now are related to the World Cup.1
The six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Qatar, as well as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates –collectively host more than 25 million migrant workers, about 10 million in construction and the rest in domestic service, retail, and other sectors. These jobs offer migrants greater economic opportunity than they have in their home countries and allow them to send money back to their families. Remittances to South Asia, two-thirds of which come from the Gulf, total more than $150 billion annually.2
Throughout the GCC, there is a striking contrast between the extraordinary wealth of the energy-producing societies that rely on imported labor and the destitution of foreign workers. Vast natural gas reserves make Qatar’s citizenry the richest in the world, per capita.3 Yet its migrant construction workforce, like those in neighboring countries, have suffered from a longstanding pattern of mistreatment: workers are routinely forced to pay steep up-front fees for their own recruitment and travel; some construction companies reduce, delay, or deny contractual wages; and the same employers maintain dangerous job sites and crowded, unsanitary living quarters.
Since early 2020, as construction for the World Cup intensified, migrant workers in Qatar and other Gulf states faced an additional hardship: the onset of Covid-19. The spread of the coronavirus compounded the dangers and deprivations these laborers faced. Infection rates soared in Qatar as hundreds of thousands of migrant workers were isolated for months in densely packed residential camps.4 Some construction companies shut down their work sites, while others, facing looming World Cup deadlines, stepped up the pace of activity. In this chaotic environment, thousands of workers saw their pay abruptly cut off; others were ordered to put in overtime but without receiving increased pay rates. By June 2020, Qatar had the highest recorded rate of Covid-19 infection in the world, largely because of illness among migrants.5
To its credit, Qatari health officials and hospitals pulled themselves together and began providing free, adequate testing and medical treatment—not only for Qatar’s citizens but also for migrants. By late 2020, Qatar was reporting one of the lowest coronavirus-related fatality rates anywhere in the world, a status the country has maintained ever since. Today, roughly 90% of Qatar’s population, including migrants, is fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, travel restrictions have been lifted, and preparations for the World Cup have resumed, even as the highly contagious Omicron variant caused a spike in infections in early 2022.
In contrast to Qatar’s effective Covid-19 response, neither the government nor the construction companies it hires have adequately addressed the economic harms suffered by migrant workers as a result of coronavirus-related disruptions or the exploitation that long predated the pandemic.
Under pressure from human rights organizations and others, Qatar in recent years has introduced new labor policies calling for the improved treatment of migrant workers, especially those assigned to World Cup projects. For some foreigners, these policies have led to a certain degree of amelioration. But old habits die hard, as illustrated by the issue of recruitment fees. Certain Qatari government contracting agencies have pledged to ensure that employers cover the cost of recruitment and travel.6 Special workers welfare standards established for those hired to build World Cup stadiums state that employers are responsible for these expenses.7 But Qatari national law does not explicitly mandate that employers cover recruitment costs. The upshot is that while the percentage of migrants helping to build World Cup facilities who have paid for their own recruitment is decreasing, the overwhelming majority of construction workers continue to bear these costs, often going deep into debt to foot the bill. Their desperation to repay lenders, among other factors, makes migrants more likely to accept exploitative job conditions. During the pandemic, the debt burden has only increased, as many workers have had to borrow additional money for quarantine accommodations and other health protocols for which they’ve been forced to pay.
What’s more, some experts warn that even modest labor reforms adopted in anticipation of the World Cup may be eclipsed as the country returns to “normal,” post-pandemic.8 “Whether or not this pandemic will force the Gulf states toward reforming the most problematic features of their labor-migration systems is still very much an open question,” Zahra Babar, associate director for research at the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s branch in Qatar, has written. “But the pandemic and its economic fallout are likely to stall some [existing] reforms, or at least blunt their impact.”9
The stark difference between Qatar’s response to the global health crisis and its continuing failure to adequately address the exploitative economic treatment of its migrant workforce, even under the spotlight of World Cup preparations, underscores the country’s unfulfilled obligations to foreign laborers. As we explain in our recommendations in Part 3, Qatar needs to apply the same kind of determination and resources it invested in its coronavirus response to improving the economic lot of workers. And a variety of other actors that will benefit from Qatar’s shiny new sports infrastructure—including corporate sponsors of the World Cup, FIFA, its broadcasting partners, and national soccer teams from around the world— need to lend their voices and pecuniary muscle to this cause.
Focus on Qatar
Qatar’s Gulf neighbors, of course, need to make similar improvements in how they treat migrant labor. In this report, we focus specifically on Qatar for two reasons: First, the World Cup has intensified construction activity in the desert nation on Saudi Arabia’s eastern border, making it an appropriate case study of large scale building in the Middle East. While Qatar has made more labor-reform promises than other Gulf countries, it has not followed through fully on many of its commitments. FIFA and certain European national soccer teams have called for improved working conditions, but this rhetorical pressure has not been matched by sufficient concrete action. Global corporations that are sponsoring the tournament—and will plaster their names on World Cup stadiums, billboards, and websites—likewise have not done enough to push for amelioration of working conditions. By focusing on Qatar, we hope to provide an unvarnished perspective on what has transpired and what can still be done before the World Cup begins.
A second reason for reporting on Qatar is that we are following up on earlier work by the NYU Stern Center of Business and Human Rights. In March 2017, we published Making Workers Pay: Recruitment of the Migrant Labor Force in the Gulf Construction Industry, a report that examined how the burden of financing their own recruitment pushes many South Asian workers into debt, making them more susceptible to exploitation.10 We focus again on Qatar to assess how the pandemic has exacerbated these conditions and may result in the failure to implement potential reforms.
In preparing this report, we collaborated with Equidem, a London-based human rights consulting firm. Local researchers overseen by Equidem interviewed 26 migrant workers who were in Qatar or had been sent back to their home countries as a result of Covid-19. All of these workers were, or had been, employed by contractors or subcontractors on projects overseen by one or more Qatari government-affiliated institutions: Ashghal, the national utilities agency; Qatar Rail, which oversees the construction of roads and train infrastructure; and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which has supervised construction of World Cup stadiums and broader infrastructure improvements. Equidem researchers also interviewed recruiting agents and money lenders in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal who interact with migrant workers. We also consulted with migrant-rights advocates, company representatives, and academic experts. While our research and analysis apply primarily to the construction industry, the problems we address also affect Qatar’s hospitality and private security sectors, which have been recruiting migrant workers this year in connection with the World Cup.
Read full report here.