“Don’t kill us, we are at work,” say street signs urging drivers in the small but congested Arab emirate of Qatar not to vent their frustration on the immigrant labourers toiling away at various roadwork sites. After all, these destitute workers will likely be key players in delivering the 12 air-conditioned stadiums and extensive railway system Qatar has promised for the 2022 World Cup.
More than 70 per cent of Qatar’s population, estimated at one million, is made up of immigrants; the large majority are construction and domestic workers, mostly from South Asia, whose working conditions resemble “forced labour,” according to Samer Muscati, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. The migrants find themselves working 12-hour days for some $2,200 a year—up to 50 per cent less than what they were initially told. But burdened by loans to cover recruiters’ fees, they have little choice but to stay and work.
Activists hope the World Cup will bring international scrutiny on the issue, and Qatar is “very, very sensitive to foreign criticism,” especially from the West, said Matteo Legrenzi, professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa. In fact, foreign pressure on labour practices are already working. Georgetown University, for example, which is based in Washington but runs a sister program in Doha, successfully lobbied for safety standards at the construction site of a new 400,000-sq.-foot facility for its Qatar campus. At Virginia Commonwealth University, also in Doha, faculty and students are designing houses for construction workers. And a new residential complex, Barwa City, is in the making, and projected to house 25,000 foreign workers.
Still, Qatari immigration rules require foreign workers to have a guarantor, usually a local employer, who can confiscate their passports and deny them from switching jobs or leaving the country. Critics say that is the main enabler of workers’ abuse. Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have all taken steps to abolish the practice. Now Qatar, if only to avoid bad press, may decide it is in its best interest to follow suit.