Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty Images

UN urges Qatar to reform labor practices

Doha under the spotlight again over its treatment of migrant workers building World Cup infrastructure

The United Nations has urged Qatar to abolish a sponsorship system that ties migrant workers to their employers following concerns over the exploitation of Qatar’s 1.2 million migrant workers.

Delegates at the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is reviewing Qatar's record, raised concerns on Wednesday about the treatment of workers and lack of legal protections for vulnerable people.

Several of the 84 states that spoke during the session linked Qatar's hosting the 2022 World Cup with a need for the country to reform its laws.

"There are widespread reports of violations of the rights of migrant workers, especially in the context of preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup," Ireland's representative said in a statement.

The Indian Embassy reported in February that more than 500 Indian migrant workers have died since 2012 while working in Qatar. The figures from the embassy show that since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar in December 2010, there have been 717 recorded Indian deaths.

In September, The Guardian reported that Nepalese workers were dying at a rate of almost one a day over a period of three months, citing documents obtained from the Nepalese Embassy in Doha.

Khalid Bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar's foreign minister, responded to the concerns by saying that countries that host major international events were always "facing the spotlight."

"What we have heard today really gives us the confidence that we are in the right direction and on the right track," Al Thani said.

"The commitment is very strong, but one has to also balance the requirements and the responsibility on the basis that we are talking about a developing nation, which needs to meet its most important obligations and gradually move into the next level," he said.

But Michael Stephens, the deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, told Al Jazeera that there had been more discussion than change.

"There's been a lot of discussion about what might change ... what kind of implementations we might see in terms of enforcing labor rights: stepping up inspections, holding certain companies to account that break the laws," Stephens said. "At the moment, it's mostly talk and we've yet to see real substance."

Like Al Thani, Stephens said that Qatar was still a developing nation, so it could take time to implement change. "It's quite a top-heavy government. So some of this legislation and some of these ideas take a while to filter down to the bottom," he said.

Repeat offender

Activists have accused Qatar of forcing construction workers to live in squalor and work under poor safety conditions on some building sites.

Amnesty International also said that a number of domestic workers were subjected to physical and sexual abuse by their employers.

Recommendations, which are not binding, included scrapping the exploitative kafala (sponsorship) system that can prevent immigrant workers from leaving their employers, and legally protecting against what Belgium said was "persistence of violence against women and girls."

The kafala system, which requires all foreign workers to be sponsored by their employers, makes it difficult for people working in Qatar to change jobs or leave the country without an exit permit.

The U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants made similar recommendations in November.

Workers typically pay exorbitant recruitment fees, and employers routinely take control of their passports when they arrive in Qatar, according to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2014.  

Migrant workers often complain that employers fail to pay their wages on time, if at all, but they are barred from changing jobs without their sponsor’s consent other than in exceptional cases and with permission of the Interior Ministry, according to the report.

In February, the Qatar Supreme Committee, the body charged with delivering the Gulf state’s 2022 World Cup facilities, released its Workers’ Welfare Standards. The report outlined how it intends to protect the basic rights of migrant workers involved in select projects.

Human rights organizations criticized the plan for falling short.

"Qatar’s labor system needs a major overhaul, not a minor makeover,” said Nicholas McGeehan, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Reform should be led by the relevant government authorities, not the World Cup delivery committee, and it should address all migrant workers in the country, not just those who will build futuristic stadiums."

Al Jazeera and wire services

Related News

Human Rights, World Cup

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Human Rights, World Cup

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter