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Migrant Labour and the World Cup

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

On Nov. 17, 2020 The Georgetown Gazette organized a virtual conversation session on “Migrant Labour and the World Cup” led by Harleen Osahan (Class of 2021), the former administrator of the Gazette, and James Lynch, the director of FairSquare Research and Projects. Lynch is an expert on a range of human rights issues such as labour practices, business, and human rights, and civil and political rights. He also worked at Amnesty International and the UK Foreign Office focusing on the Middle East and Africa. 

Lynch talked about the exploitation of the migrant laborers, their rights, and the World Cup. He began the session by talking about his personal involvement in workers’ rights in the Gulf, starting in 2010. Qatar won its bid to host the FIFA World Cup the same year and thus came under the spotlight. The limelight brought with it international scrutiny over the workers’ condition and exploitation. However, this was not the start of the exploitation process itself. Lynch stated that Qatar faced a huge demand for a foreign workforce after the establishment of its first oil mill. As the industries in Qatar grew the demand for labour increased manifold. 

The Kafala system is an instrumental part of labour rights and exploitation in the Gulf countries. Lynch specifically discussed this law and its effects on workers. Kafala is limiting and oppressing for the workers as it takes away their rights in a market. A worker is dependent on his/her employer and cannot change their jobs or move their employer. Although Qatar introduced significant reforms in the labor laws, a chain of other abuses still exists. According to Lynch, the employment process in Qatar is one of the manifestations of this abuse. He explained that the recruitment process is quite competitive. The jobs are often sold to the laborers in South Asia. Therefore, when they start the job they are already in debt. Other abuses such as poor housing, passport retention, underpayment, or non-payment were common and further talked about. Lynch also touched upon the issue of physical and sexual abuse workers commonly face particularly on a domestic scale. While the World Cup and other statistics have brought to light the appalling conditions of migrant workers in the industrial field, like the underpayment or passport retention, the poor situation of domestic workers was still largely unknown. Lynch noted that they were often forgotten in conversations, isolated in homes, and received less attention. Their conditions remained concealed and out of sight. 

Lynch wasn’t optimistic about many of the reforms despite appreciating them. According to him, notwithstanding the reforms, the larger oppressive structure remains the same. For instance, a system for complaints had been established in Qatar but Lynch remained sceptical about its effectiveness in resolving the workers’ issues. Despite winning the cases, the workers often did not get any payment. Lynch also pointed out some significant improvements.  In 2019, many of the unpaid workers went on a strike. Lynch was surprised to see how senior officials in Qatar talked to the workers and tried to diffuse the tension through a dialogue. For Lynch, this difference in approach on part of the Qatari government stood out and hinted towards progress. However, the question remains unanswered: what happens after the World Cup? What happens when all eyes are not on Qatar, when there is no continuous scrutiny? Will Qatar’s approach be any different? 

Lynch ended his talk by speaking about the COVID-19 situation and its effects on the migrant laborers. He talked about how the workers were put out of jobs or demonized for being the carriers of disease. In March 2020, workers on leave were unable to return which left them without a source of income. None of the workers are sure whether they will be able to return and if at all they can. 

The talk was followed by a question and answer session. The participants asked some thought provoking questions. They were interrogative about the reliability and effectiveness of the laws and reforms made over the years. Were the laws actually implemented in a way that benefited the workers or were they mere reforms on paper?  Lynch talked about the worker’s fund that has been quite successful. Many producers were unable to pay the workers due to a variety of reasons. What this fund did was that it essentially took some burden off the shoulders of the producers and ensured that the workers get paid.

In addition to this, the establishment of minimum wage has been helpful to protect the workers against unfair wage reductions. While Lynch acknowledged these developments, he repeated that a lot needs to be done. The workers’ rights in Qatar have not yet reached the minimum standards set by international organizations.  He expressed concern over the fact that workers still can’t join or form a union.

Furthermore, Lynch stressed upon the need for a societal change rather than simply taking recourse to legal reforms. He believes that racism is ingrained in the Gulf society, which has caused further hindrances in implementing the reforms and laws in favour of the workers.

Lynch, while interviewing few workers in Qatar a few years ago, understood how workers not only dealt with legal discrimination but also suffered local discrimination. One of the interviewees recollected how a local police officer once tore his complaint into pieces.  This brought to fore the need to change attitudes and not just laws.

While the session mainly focused on migrant labour, many participants steered the conversation towards domestic workers and their issues. Lynch explained in countries like Qatar, it is hard to regulate private spaces such as homes. Often the violence or abuse taking place within such spaces goes unnoticed. The employers often ask their workers not to keep a mobile phone, which puts the domestic workers in a position of abuse without any source of help.

Soon the conversation was geared towards the ways to regulate private spaces and secure women’s rights. Lynch remarked that many human rights organizations and individuals have taken initiatives towards ensuring that the workers do not accept such requirements. Yet, he felt there was a need for laws about domestic violence, which need to be implemented.

The session ended on a more positive note. Lynch mentioned how the new generation in the region has more progressive attitudes about migrant workers’ rights and can be a big step towards societal change. According to Lynch, the scrutiny over the workers’ rights due to the World Cup and the consequential reforms will possibly expand to other GCC countries.

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