Notoriety in the Gulf region usually rests on Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, but Qatar has slowly been rising in the world’s consciousness. Mostly this has been due to sporting reasons, with the purchase of Paris Saint-Germain by the Qatari Investment Authority and the granting of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. However, this increased attention and scrutiny has shed more light on the “kafala” system of migration used in the Gulf states, and used extensively in Qatar. This has swiftly led to criticism of this system and its many abuses against migrant workers.
The kafala system is the migration laws and regulations used mostly in the Gulf states. Under the kafala system, sponsors pay for the recruitment of foreign workers and assume economic and financial responsibility for them. The visas for the workers are also tied to the sponsor, linking employee and employer in a tight relationship. Because the visa is bound to the employer, workers cannot seek employment with another employer without the consent of their sponsor. Any breaking of the contract means that the worker must compensate their sponsor the recruitment fee that the sponsor had paid. Workers must even get permission from their employers to leave the country while under contract. Being stuck with your employer for a two year period like this has led to numerous abuses.
Qatar in particular has been prone to abuses tied to the kafala system. With a Gross National Income per capita of $80,470, Qatar is awash with petrodollars to fund the importation of skilled and unskilled workers. Roughly 85% of Qatar’s population are not Qatari citizens, highlighting their reliance on foreign workers, particularly from South Asia and the Philippines. Many times, workers are promised a certain level of wages, and then either paid drastically lower wages or not paid at all. Workers in the construction industry face particularly bad conditions. The Indian embassy in Qatar has reported that over 500 Indians have died in Qatar since January 2012, while 185 Nepalese died in 2013 alone, mostly from cardiac arrest resulting from working long hours in the heat. Amnesty International has reported about workers living in cramped accommodations with wooden floors and no mattresses, all while being owed 1.5 million riyals ($412,000) in backpay.
The abuses of the kafala system are not limited to construction workers. A recent report by the Guardian found that domestic workers and restaurant employees were working extremely long hours while not receiving the pay they were promised. Workers have needed to find second jobs to make enough money to get by, even though this is illegal under the kafala system. Some have even needed their families to send money, invalidating their reason to come to Qatar in the first place. Domestic workers in Qatar typically work more hours than other foreign workers, averaging 60 hours a week. Oddly enough, even soccer players have been caught under the kafala system, with French player Zahir Belounis being stuck in Qatar for a year after his club, Al-Jaish, refused to grant an exit permit. This led to the players’ union, FIFPro, sending a delegation to Qatar in 2013 to advocate against the kafala system.
With increased international attention on Qatar’s kafala system, it remains to be seen what Qatar’s response will be. Most of the gulf states have similar systems, but have responded differently. Bahrain scrapped their kafala system, replacing employer sponsorship with sponsorship by the state Labour Authority. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has focused on deporting foreign workers to open up more jobs for native Saudis. Qatar has so far issued new safety and security reforms while increasing the amount of trained labor inspectors, all without abolishing the kafala system. With the World Cup in Qatar still a ways off in 2022, it remains to be seen how these new regulations will help migrant workers, or if anything changes. One thing that can be guaranteed is that this practice will not disappear any time soon.