Migrant workers in Qatar

The immigration website Boundless examines the involvement of migrant workers in the World Cup in Qatar. These workers are subject to the rules of the “kafala” system of employment (go here and here). Figures of workers and accidents are very soft. The Guardian estimates that there have been over 6,000 work deaths since 2010. (This is for all work, not just World Cup construction.)


The migrant workforce in Qatar is estimated at 2 million, making up nearly 95% of the labor force in a country of just 3 million people. [Leading source countries are India 700K, Bangladesh 260K, Nepal 250K, Pakistan 240K per one data source]

Qatar’s population also increased by nearly 40% after its World Cup hosting was announced, as demand in the construction industry boomed and many migrants, mostly of South Asian descent, flocked to the country to fill open positions. Qatar has since faced accusations of widespread mistreatment of the country’s migrant workforces and downplaying work-related deaths. Tournament organizers originally placed the official death toll at 40, but this week World Cup chief Hassan Al-Thawadi cited a greater figure of migrant workers who’ve died as a result of tournament preparations: around 400 to 500.

Under the kafala, or sponsorship, system, the employment and immigration status of migrant workers are controlled entirely by private citizens and companies, rather than the government. Workers’ employment and visas are intrinsically linked and employers often have the power to terminate migrant workers’ legal statuses at will, putting them at risk of imprisonment or deportation. Historically, migrant workers have needed their employer’s permission to transfer jobs, leave their current positions, and enter or exit their host country. Previously under the kafala system, in most countries, workers had to apply for a specific exit permit to leave the country and a “non-objection” certificate to switch jobs. At its worst, the kafala system is akin to modern-day indentured servitude.

International attention on Qatar due to the World Cup did trigger policy changes in the last several years, but many say the new labor laws don’t do enough to protect workers and their families. In Qatar, migrant workers can now change jobs freely without permission from their employer, a standard minimum wage now exists, and penalties for employers who withhold wages have increased.

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