Post-World Cup, Qatar is pressing ahead with labor reforms but concerns for migrant workers remain

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — When Qatar hosted the World Cup a little over a year ago, the wealthy emirate faced intense scrutiny over its human rights record, especially the treatment of migrant workers who helped build the glitzy stadiums.

The issue has faded to the background as Qatar once again plays host to a major international soccer tournament – this time the Asian Cup, which ends Saturday with the host nation playing Jordan in the final.

The U.N.-backed International Labor Organization says reforms introduced following the World Cup have improved the situation of migrant workers, while adding that more needs to be done. Meanwhile, human rights group Amnesty International says migrant workers still face abuses.

“In Qatar, we have recognized that there have been some improvements in recent years with the introduction of labor reforms, but that those reforms remain weakly implemented and severe abuse continues on a significant scale,” Amnesty’s head of economic social justice, Stephen Cockburn, told The AP.

“Progress also seems to have stagnated since the World Cup and there is an urgent need to revive the reform process and enforce laws to the fullest extent,″ he said.

Last November, Amnesty urged Qatar and FIFA to do more for migrant workers – particularly in terms of compensation.

The ongoing need for foreign labor is abundantly clear just walking through the streets of Doha and not just to carry out construction of the city’s ever-expanding skyline, which is still punctuated by cranes and partly-built tower blocks.

Migrant workers collect litter, serve coffee, drive taxis and provide security.

The introduction of a minimum monthly wage is still only 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275) plus food and accommodation.

Workers live in single-sex accommodation, with men likely to be in shared rooms of between four and six people. Women could live in villas, again with shared rooms.

Low wage workers are likely to send back 81% of their wages, the ILO says, which points to the meagre amounts they live on in Qatar.

Security guards can work 12 hours and then swap beds with the person taking on the next 12-hour shift.

Yet migrants still come.

“When you see it is better in another country you have to make that step,” a security guard from Kenya, who has been in Qatar for three years, told The AP. Like other migrant workers who spoke to The AP, he did not want to give his name

He said he planned to move on again, hopefully to another continent, saying work was not as plentiful since the World Cup and that had impacted wages.

Even with such a low minimum wage, another motorcycle courier from Ghana said it still paid more than he could earn at home, enabling him to send money to his son.

With an estimated population of less than 3 million and only around 300,000 citizens, a wealthy and rapidly-developing country like Qatar is heavily-reliant on its migrant workforce.

That was especially the case when it was controversially awarded the 2022 World Cup, with labor needed to build over $200 billion worth of stadiums and infrastructure.

But the treatment of foreign workers, who labored in the searing heat and some of whom died in the process of delivering the World Cup, was the focus of criticism for more than 10 years in the lead-up to the tournament.

Concerns extended beyond the potentially hazardous construction industry, particularly around the kafala employment system, which had previously given employers control over whether migrant workers could change jobs or even leave the country.

“There are still a huge amount of labor issues that workers face especially around wages or challenges around changing jobs, but we feel like we are seeing a change, systems are improving and commitment is still high post-World Cup,” said Max Tunon, the head of the ILO project office in Qatar.

“By no means is it perfect and where we need it to be, but by law there have been major changes that have been adopted. That kafala system, and abuse that could come from that kafala system, is the main difference that we see today.”

Tunon says there is now a system for workers to register complaints while occupational health legislation, introduced in 2021, includes periods when it is prohibited to work outdoors during summer months.

FIFA said the World Cup had been an “important catalyst” for reforms.

“It is undeniable that significant progress has taken place, and it is equally clear that the enforcement of such transformative reforms takes time and that heightened efforts are needed to ensure the reforms benefit all workers in the country,” soccer’s governing body said in what has become a consistent statement.

The number of work-related deaths in the delivery of the World Cup came under intense scrutiny in the lead-up.

In a study published by the ILO, it said there were 50 work-related deaths in Qatar in 2020 and 506 severe injuries, although there are issues in determining a definitive overall number.

“We say there needs to be more investigations of deaths that may in fact be work related, but are currently not categorized as work related,” Tunon said.

“As a result those workers, their family members, are not able to get compensation if it’s not considered to be a work-related death. We do feel this is certainly a gap.”

Qatar’s international media office did not immediately respond to questions asked by the AP, but said in a statement in November that its commitment to safeguarding workers’ rights “was always intended to continue long after the tournament ended. Qatar now leads the region on workers’ rights and labor reforms, setting an example for other countries on how a system can be successfully overhauled.”

The World Cup is set to return to the Middle East in 2034, with Saudi Arabia the only country left in the bidding process.

“The biggest lesson from the World Cup in Qatar is probably to tackle the human rights risks from the very start,” Cockburn said.

He added that “many lives could have been saved and much exploitation prevented. To avoid another decade of abuses and controversies, FIFA and Saudi Arabia will have to be clear on what they will do to reform the country’s labor laws, how they will guarantee freedom of expression for journalists and human rights activists, and how they will ensure legal protection for the LGBTI community.

“The risks are enormous and failing to tackle them now would be a historic mistake.”

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

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