The World Cup put a spotlight on how Qatar treats foreign laborers – but the problem spans the Arab region.
It would not be a small undertaking if Vermont announced that, in the next decade, it would build seven stadiums and overhaul its infrastructure to host one of the world’s largest international sporting events.
Yet Qatar, with about half the citizens and half the land of Vermont, has spent the last decade preparing to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the first country in the Arab world to do so. To make the event possible, Qatar relied heavily on migrant workers, who human rights groups accuse the country of abusing.
Since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010, its labor force has increased by about 1 million workers. By 2021, migrants made up over 95% of the country’s labor force.
In 2019, the Arab states had the highest percentage of migrant workers in its labor force of any subregion, at 41%. FIFA’s choice to host the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which some allege was influenced by bribes, has been controversial in part due to concerns about forced labor and human trafficking.
While Qatar claims to have abolished elements of the kafala system, a system of labor sponsorship where employers can control and regulate the lives of foreign laborers they employ, human rights groups say much of that system still lingers, albeit informally. The kafala system is largely associated with forced labor and poor working conditions, and often includes policies such as passport confiscation by employers, predatory recruitment fees and poor living conditions. Therefore, migrants face significant barriers when they try to leave the country or leave a job to which they’re financially indebted, and have trouble arguing for health care, time off or better working conditions.
Some countries in the Arab world still have elements of the kafala system. The system, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, “applies to almost all foreigners working in a kafala host country, comprising all nationalities, economic classes, and professions.” In the Arab states, a majority of those workers come from South Asia and Africa.
Experts and human rights groups have argued that the kafala system makes migrant workers more vulnerable to human trafficking, which the U.S. government defines as the “use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”
Each year, the U.S. State Department releases a Trafficking in Persons Report that puts countries into tiers based on their government’s efforts to eliminate human trafficking. Countries in Tier 1 have adequate policies in place to curb human trafficking, Tier 2 countries don’t yet have adequate policies in place but are working to adopt those policies and countries in Tier 3 don’t have sufficient policies and aren’t making progress. (The Tier 2 Watchlist is for nations in danger of falling into Tier 3.)
Several countries in the Arab region have struggled with their human trafficking policies for years, according to the report. Syria, for example, has been designated Tier 3 for more than a decade. Saudi Arabia, which is making a bid for the 2030 World Cup, improved to Tier 2 in 2021, before which it was designated either Tier 2 Watchlist or Tier 3. Qatar is currently designated Tier 2, having slowly improved its rating since the early 2000s.
Many hope that the spotlight brought to the region due to the World Cup will affect long-lasting change to labor laws and migrant rights, but others are skeptical.
“I can’t help but wonder what’s in store for migrant workers after the World Cup,” Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan security guard who was detained by Qataris in 2021 after anonymously blogging about worker rights, wrote recently for a rights group.
“If workers still live in horrible conditions, if workers still go months without pay, if workers still can’t freely change jobs, if domestic workers still can’t get justice, what happens when no one’s looking?”