Migrant Rights in Qatar: Inaction After the World Cup

  1. Introduction

Background Information on Qatar’s FIFA World Cup Host

When Qatar’s bid to host the FIFA World Cup was first unveiled in December 2010, there were numerous doubts and controversies. As the World Cup has historically been held in countries with a rich footballing history and infrastructure, Qatar’s winning bid signaled a fundamental change in the world of football. Qatar’s status as one of the world’s wealthiest nations played a pivotal role in securing the tournament. The country’s immense financial resources promised to deliver a World Cup of unparalleled luxury, but this extravagance stood in stark contrast to the grim reality faced by many of its migrant workers.

The concept of hosting a World Cup in a compact nation, with state-of-the-art stadiums and infrastructure, was groundbreaking. This approach aimed to reduce travel times for teams and fans and minimize the carbon footprint of the event. However, the very construction of these grand stadiums was tainted by human rights abuses and exploitation, highlighting the complex dynamics of a nation that simultaneously sought to present a progressive image to the world while grappling with human rights concerns, particularly those affecting the migrant labor force.

Human rights organizations and other critics argued that Qatar’s bid was built on the exploitation of migrant laborers who faced appalling working conditions, inadequate living conditions, poor wages, and unsafe workplaces. These problems remained despite promises of reforms and improvements, which brought up important moral concerns regarding how the very individuals in charge of creating the World Cup’s infrastructure were treated.

The human rights concerns that surrounded Qatar’s World Cup preparations and the event itself were far-reaching, with the most discussed problems being:

Workers Exploitation: Reports of labor abuses and exploitation, including inadequate living conditions, poor wages, and unsafe working conditions for the migrant labor force responsible for building the World Cup infrastructure, raised international alarm. Despite promises of reform, these issues persisted, reflecting poorly on Qatar’s commitment to human rights.

The Kafala System: The controversial kafala system, which tied migrant workers to their employers, was a focal point of criticism. Critics argued that the reforms introduced were inadequate and did little to protect the rights and dignity of workers.

Climate and Health: The extreme heat of the Qatari summer posed health risks to players and spectators, leading to schedule changes and concerns about the welfare of participants and attendees. While air-conditioned stadiums addressed the issue to some extent, the environmental impact of cooling them raised further ethical questions.

  1. Migrant Workers in Qatar

In October 2020, the population of Qatar was estimated to be 2,895,805. By 2019, international migrants represented 78.7% of the population, totalling roughly 2,229,700, and making up nearly 95% of the labor force in a country of just 3 million people. Women represented 17.2% of migrants and children represented 14% (2019). The three largest immigrant groups are from India (698,100), Bangladesh (263,100), and Nepal (254,300). But some migrants are also from Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda, and other countries. These migrant workers played a crucial role in the preparations for the FIFA World Cup, providing the necessary labor force to meet the massive demands of construction, infrastructure development, and event organization.

Even though these migrant workers were close to the totality of the labor force during the last decade of preparations in Qatar, these workers faced a range of human rights issues, including labor exploitation, substandard working conditions, restrictions on mobility, and inadequate access to healthcare and education. The kafala system, which ties workers to their employers, had been a focal point of criticism, often leading to situations of forced labor and abuse. Additionally, workers’ access to justice and effective remedies for rights violations was and still is limited even after the end of the World Cup.

One of the most prevalent forms of mistreatment faced by migrant workers was and still is wage theft. Amnesty International, in particular, documented numerous cases involving thousands of workers who have either not yet received their wages and benefits or had been working as  underpaid staff for extended periods, sometimes spanning months or even years. Given that many of these workers have often taken out high-interest loans to cover exorbitant and illicit recruitment fees, such delays have been reported as being devastating, particularly when the worker is responsible for supporting not only themselves but also their families back in their home countries.

Since 2010, a substantial number of migrant workers have experienced sudden and unexplained deaths in Qatar, despite undergoing medical assessments before arriving in the country. Despite evidence linking these premature deaths to hazardous working conditions, Qatari authorities have failed to investigate the root causes of these fatalities. Consequently, grieving families are left in the dark about the circumstances surrounding their loved ones’ demise and are deprived of the possibility of seeking compensation from either their employers or the Qatari authorities.

Certain migrant workers are subjected to excessively long work hours and are denied days of rest, all under the threat of having their wages reduced. This situation can be classified as forced labor. For example, security personnel have reported to Amnesty International that they are routinely required to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, without a single day off for extended periods, sometimes spanning months or even years. Should they take a weekly day off, they run the risk of having their wages docked by as much as six days’ pay by their employers.

The Gulf region, comprising countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, is home to a substantial migrant worker population. Examining the conditions of these workers reveals commonalities and differences in labor practices and rights protection. Some Gulf nations have undertaken labor reforms to improve conditions, but challenges persist, such as the prevalence of the kafala system and wage disparities.

None of the six GCC countries have signed the most important conventions on the protection of the rights of migrant workers, namely the Migration for Employment Convention, 1949 (No. 097), the Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143), and the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

  1. Promises Made by Qatar:

Qatar set itself apart in 2020 from the other Gulf states by making a promise that was comforting for the state of human rights in the region: the end of the Kafala system. The kafala system, also known as the “sponsorship system”, is a practice used to encourage the employment of foreign workers, particularly migrant workers. In the kafala system, foreign workers are bequeathed to their employer or “kafil” (sponsor in Arabic), with the employer acting as guarantor and responsible for the foreign employee in various administrative and legal matters, including the issuing of work and residence visas, as well as supervising the employee’s stay in the host country.

This system creates a high degree of dependency on the part of the employee, whose entire life is in the hands of his or her employer, and is one of the main causes of human trafficking in the region. Migrant domestic workers are disproportionately and terribly affected by this system, subjugated and locked up by their employers in their properties, often beaten and raped, hidden from view for years. Over the past decade, NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, UN experts and the media have documented how the kafala system in the region leaves migrant workers vulnerable to a wide range of abuses, from confiscation of passports to delayed wage payments and forced labor. The organized civil society revealed how key elements of the system allow migrant workers to remain trapped in employment situations where their rights to adequate housing, freedom of movement, and access to justice are threatened. These are substantial violations of human rights and run counter to all the commitments made by the United Nations. One of these elements is the control exercised by the employer over the migrant worker’s ability to change or leave his or her job.

In the face of a system that is extremely violent and prolific in terms of human rights violations, Qatar announced that it would end the kafala system, a pioneer in the Gulf states. So, after years of tireless efforts by NGOs promoting human rights in the Gulf countries, Qatar has become the first Arab country in the region to put an end to one of the main aspects of the kafala system. Qatar’s new labor law, which came into force in September 2020, means that all migrant workers are ostensibly no longer under the tutelage of their employers, and can enjoy their freedoms, with social and economic freedoms as well as, for example, the right to leave and change jobs before the end of their contract: this avoids the infernal hold that bosses had over their vulnerable employees, who were often migrant workers. In theory, this also creates a legal way out of catastrophic situations of rights violation. And it should be noted, so as not to exclude any professional category, that these changes also apply to migrant workers excluded from the protection of labor law, such as domestic workers.

There is also a framework of international supervision over Qatar to ensure that it fulfills its commitments: in this sense, as early as 2017 when Qatar embarked on a cooperation programme with the International Labour Organisation ILO with the aim of developing effective labor condition plans for migrant workers in order to revise the kafala system. Together with the ILO, Qatar has stated a commitment to implementing a contractual system to replace the kafala system, which includes renewing residence permits directly with migrant workers instead of through employers. On a technical legal level, Qatar authorizes migrant workers to renew their residence permits directly with the government, which should help to integrate and regularize the status of migrant workers and thus provide them with better protection; in this sense, by removing from criminal law the act of “running away” when a migrant worker is fleeing from working conditions that are too difficult or dangerous.

  1. Post-Kafala Developments

Despite its official abolition, however, kafala has lost none of its harmfulness, reveals Vani Saraswathi, Project Director at Migrant-Rights.org. Nevertheless, the situation does not appear to be quite so simple, and is also sometimes a little worrying, as Human Rights Watch points out that most of the workers interviewed expressed their fear of finding themselves in a situation of irregular migration, which could expose them to arrest, detention and deportation. While employers are responsible for obtaining, renewing and cancelling migrant workers’ work and residence permits, this leaves migrant workers dependent on employers for their legal permission to reside.

Employers are responsible for securing or renewing the residence permits of their workers within 90 days of their arrival or the expiry of the residence permit. If the employer does not respect this deadline, the worker runs the risk of being arrested, detained and deported, which restricts their freedom of movement and discourages them from seeking legal assistance. In addition, an employer has the power to cancel a worker’s residence permit at any time, which also limits the worker’s ability to remain legally in the country for up to 90 days. This is a striking warning. A worker who fails to leave the country within the prescribed 90 days can be sentenced to up to 3 years in prison, a fine of up to QAR 50,000 or both. In addition, they may be fined a further QAR 200 for each day that their visa is overstayed.

While these changes are a step forward, they are still insufficient in the eyes of human rights activists. “The new minimum wage will boost the incomes of some of the lowest paid workers in Qatar, but the level set remains low,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Economic and Social Justice Officer, in a statement. “To make a real difference, it will need to be regularly reviewed and progressively increased to ensure fair and favourable conditions for all“, he insisted, adding that the issue of renewing and cancelling migrant workers’ residence permits remains linked to the employer’s goodwill. Employers also retain the right to lodge a complaint of “absconding” if an employee leaves work without their permission, an action that could result in arrest or even deportation.  “Talk of the end of the kafala may be premature as long as the residence of (migrant) workers remains tied to their employers“, noted the NGO Fair/Square.In this sense, the measures taken by Qatar to put an end to the kafala system must not be allowed to become a smokescreen. The legal systems must take every possibility into account to protect workers, and in particular the status of migrant workers, who make up the largest proportion of workers in the country, and who are at the same time vulnerable and persecuted by the Kafala system.

  1. Compliance and Accountability – The role of international organizations, NGOs, and the media in monitoring Qatar’s progress

Thanks to the efforts of human rights organizations, the hardships endured by immigrant workers during the construction of FIFA’s World Cup infrastructure in Qatar came under public scrutiny. They unveiled the inhumane treatment of migrant workers, subjecting the issue to international scrutiny with the media’s support, and documented cases of forced labor, human trafficking, and the appalling living and working conditions these workers faced. In this context, human rights organizations and journalists consistently recorded the violations, abuses, and dire circumstances endured by migrant workers during the tournament. This occurred in a country that already had a problematic history of labor rights violations, primarily through the kafala sponsorship system.

Due to the unrelenting international pressure exerted by human rights organizations and the media, the deplorable conditions faced by thousands of migrant workers during FIFA’s World Cup in Qatar gained global attention and pushed for advancements in securing improved working conditions and labor rights for these individuals.

As a result, both FIFA and Qatari authorities implemented various measures to enhance the conditions experienced by migrant workers. According to the HRW report, Qatari authorities, including the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is responsible for planning and executing World Cup infrastructure, introduced several initiatives. These initiatives encompass the Wage Protection System (WPS) by the Labor Ministry, Labor Dispute Resolution Committees, the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund (Workers’ Support Fund), and the Universal Reimbursement Scheme introduced by the Supreme Committee. Furthermore, the Supreme Committee encourages its contractors to provide life insurance coverage for their employees.

Implementation of these reforms, especially in sectors like construction, security, and for domestic migrant workers, has fallen short of expectations. Many unscrupulous employers have managed to evade their legal obligations concerning wages, job transfers, working conditions, residency, and other rights.

While the introduction of a minimum wage was a positive step, there are still gaps in ensuring the timely payment of wages. It has been documented that many companies have failed to pay their workers for months. The labor inspectorate and dispute resolution mechanisms have proven inadequate in serving the approximately two million migrant workers in the country.

The legal underpinnings of the kafala system, which bound workers to employers, have been dismantled in Qatar, and progress has been made in its implementation. However, reports show that workers still encounter difficulties, especially when attempting to change employers.

Despite the implementation of several promising labor reforms, widespread violations and abuses of workers’ rights persist. Additionally, Qatari authorities have failed to investigate the causes of thousands of migrant worker deaths, with a significant portion attributed to “natural causes.”

Consequently, the extent of uncompensated human rights violations in Qatar remains substantial, and NGOs persist in their fundamental advocacy efforts, exerting pressure to hold perpetrators accountable and ensure a minimum level of respect and dignity for thousands of migrant workers in Qatar.

  1. Qatar’s Engagement with International Community

In 2014, Qatar came under international scrutiny following a complaint lodged by international labor unions with the ILO, alleging violations of international labor standards, particularly in relation to the “kafala” sponsorship system. This initiated a sequence of actions, including the deployment of a high-level mission to Qatar and negotiations that culminated in a comprehensive labor reform program. This program addressed various aspects of labor law, policy, and institutional frameworks, aimed at enhancing the rights of migrant workers and bringing labor practices in line with contemporary standards.

A significant milestone in this endeavor was the establishment of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Project Office in Qatar in April 2018, the first of its kind in the Gulf region. This office played a vital role in facilitating the implementation of labor reforms and aligning Qatar’s practices with international norms. International organizations like the ILO have been instrumental in ensuring that Qatar aligns its domestic legislation and practices with international labor standards, serving as a benchmark for accountability.

As a result, the country has entered into numerous bilateral agreements with nations that supply migrant workers, offering standardized employment contracts covering essential aspects like contract duration, travel expenses, wages, accommodation, medical care, and annual leave. Yet, these contracts lack specificity concerning job descriptions and working conditions.

That is why countries of origin hold an important role in advocating for the welfare of their nationals working abroad. By pursuing bilateral labor agreements that encompass comprehensive provisions on working conditions and minimum wage standards, they can better protect their citizens and ensure their rights are upheld in the host country. This step is crucial in the pursuit of fair and ethical labor practices.

Although regulatory frameworks for migrant workers exist in the sending countries, there is widespread acknowledgment that there remains a serious lack of control over the thousands of private recruitment agencies that can require migrant workers to pay recruitment fees for jobs in Qatar and do not ensure satisfactory workplace conditions putting them in a vulnerable condition.

The reforms that have already been implemented are crucial steps toward protecting workers’ rights, but they need to be continued, developed, and extended to fill remaining gaps and ensure comprehensive protection. Nevertheless, addressing responsibility, accountability, and compensation for past and ongoing abuses is also essential.

  1. Conclusion

The harsh reality faced by migrant workers in Qatar is a scenario fraught with human rights challenges. They encounter labor exploitation, deplorable working conditions, mobility restrictions, and limited access to healthcare and education, creating a disturbing backdrop. The infamous kafala system, which ties workers to their employers, has drawn fervent criticism, often resulting in forced labor and blatant abuses. Unfortunately, pathways to justice and resources for rights violations remain frustratingly restricted.

Wage theft is a widespread scourge afflicting these workers, with documented cases of unpaid or underpaid wages extending for months, even years. Such prolonged delays can be devastating, especially for those supporting their families in their home countries.

Although FIFA and Qatari authorities have announced a series of measures aimed at improving the conditions of migrant workers, including the Wage Protection System (WPS), Labor Dispute Resolution Committees, the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund, and the Universal Reimbursement Scheme, among others, their effective implementation, especially in the construction, security, and domestic work sectors, has sadly fallen short. Unscrupulous employers continue to flout their legal obligations with impunity.

The legal foundations of the kafala system have been at least partially dismantled in Qatar, accompanied by advancements in its implementation. However, workers still face obstacles, especially when attempting to change employers.

International collaboration is crucial in addressing these issues. Efforts by international organizations, NGOs, and human rights advocates in raising awareness and advocating for change must be acknowledged. The government of Qatar should work with independent organizations and experts to provide accurate and unbiased assessments of the situation.

The reforms initiated represent crucial steps in protecting the rights of migrant workers in Qatar, but their expansion is imperative to address lingering gaps and ensure comprehensive protection. However, a fundamental aspect of the broader solution remains: the pursuit of accountability for those complicit in past and ongoing abuses, namely, Qatar, FIFA, and other entities must be held accountable for crimes committed against workers.


  1. Qatar must establish an independent body tasked with investigating migrant worker deaths and ensuring that thorough examinations are conducted to determine the causes of these fatalities. Families of deceased workers should be provided with adequate compensation and support.
  2. Qatar should continue its efforts to reform labor laws and policies. This includes addressing remaining gaps in protection and continuously developing measures to improve the conditions of migrant workers.
  3. Qatar must establish mechanisms for holding employers accountable for any past or ongoing abuses. This can involve investigations into previous cases of exploitation and the provision of compensation to affected workers.
  4. Qatar must continue and persevere to use international tools such as the ILO to pursue its efforts to abolish kafala as well as listening to the recommendations made by members of civil society in order to move towards complete abolition.
  5. Qatar absolutely must resolve all its legal shortcomings with regard to migrant workers, giving them genuine legal status within the country so that they can enjoy social and economic labour rights, in particular the right to a trade union.