Following international scrutiny of what is predicted to be the deadliest sporting event in history, Qatar announced on Sunday it would improve conditions for its surplus of migrant workers building the $200 billion stadiums and other infrastructure projects necessary to host the 2022 World Cup.
In March, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) predicted that as many as 4,000 migrant workers, many of whom are indentured under the country’s kafala system, would die prepping the small Persian Gulf country for the World Cup. In the midst of heavy criticism, the Qatar Labor Minister announced an array of labor reforms in a bid to keep from being stripped of its chance to host the soccer tournament.
More than 90 precent of Qatar’s 2.2 million population are migrant workers who enter the country through its kafala system. Essentially a form of indentured servitude, workers are required to have a domestic sponsor who controls not only their pay, living conditions and job freedom, but also their ability to leave the country voluntarily. Stripped of virtually all their rights, workers have no means of reporting countless employee abuses from fraudulent contracts to confiscated passports to uncompensated pay, and many are forced to work during the scorching summer heat where temperatures average more than 100 degrees, sometimes reaching as high as 117 degrees. Almost 1,000 people, at a rate of more than one per day, have already died during construction of the World Cup many from unexplained illnesses, dehydration or sudden cardiac arrest, some have even committed suicide.
The reforms announced by Qatar Labor Minister Abdullah Saleh Mubarak al-Khulaifi are meant to tackle a handful of these problems, but still fall short of fully eradicating them. Though companies are now required to set up bank accounts for their workers and pay wages within seven days or face a sanction, the government has not detailed how much that fine would be. Work is now banned during peak heat hours between 11:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. from mid-June to the end of August, but reforms for other safety concerns have not been outlined. The government launched an electronic complaint system and is building living accommodations for 150,000 workers, but an estimated 500,000 more migrants are expected to come to Qatar in the eight years prior to the start of the tournament. And notably absent from Qatar’s proposed measures is the abolishment of the kafala system.
“We know there is much more to do, but we are making definite progress,” al-Khulaifi said in a statement. In May, Qatar promised the kafala system would be replaced with “a modern contract between worker and employer,” but did not give a timeline of when that would occur.
The International Trade Union Confederation, which has laid out specific reform proposals, isn’t satisfied, saying in a statement to ThinkProgress that even now Qatar is “not promising any new or significant reforms.”
“Despite much promised reform, Qatar has failed to deliver on any of these conditions to improve the lives of migrant workers in Qatar,” the statement from ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow says. Burrow’s statement added that Qatar needs to reform its legal and justice systems to properly enforce any new regulations or laws including implementing “a competent and fully-staffed labour inspectorate and a functional judiciary.”
A special report on Qatar’s labor problems, set to air Tuesday night on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, revealed scenes of dead migrant workers returning to their home countries in bright red coffins. The workers who die will be all migrants, some of whom have already tried to leave the country. One Nepali woman featured in the segment lost her brother-in-law who, months before his death, was denied permission to return home by his employer.
“Qatar says the worker deaths are normal, that statistically you would except these number of deaths from natural causes,” HBO reporter David Scott asks in an interview with Husain Adbulla, a human rights activist.
“It is disgusting for them to even justify this,” Adbulla said in response. “They are dying because of these work conditions, because of the heat, because there is no safety measures applied, some of them hydration. It is anything but normal.”
On top of these human rights abuses, there are other problems around Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Qatar managed to outbid the United States in December 2010, despite having never qualified for a World Cup match and forcing FIFA officials to consider postponing the tournament to the winter to combat the extreme summer heat.
In June, the Sunday Times reported that Qatar may have bribed FIFA officials with £3 million in exchange for votes to host the tournament. FIFA is conducting an investigation into those claims, though it does not expect to make its report available to the public. If the allegations are proven true, FIFA Vice President Jim Boyce has already said he would consider a re-vote, and Qatar could end up losing its chance to host the World Cup so many have already died trying to make happen.