"For five months I had to live with very little food and no salary. My family was really affected. Tears come to my eyes when I remember where we used to go to find food… in the bins." That's Jack, a migrant worker from Kenya describing what happened to him in the wealthiest country, per capita, in the world. The country is Qatar, the host for the 2022 World Cup and host, too, to two million migrants building the infrastructure for football's greatest extravaganza.
Jack's story is but one in a damning new investigation by Amnesty International into the failure of the government of Qatar to deliver on promises made to end the abuse of migrants. The report, titled "All Work, No Pay" was released today. It details how hundreds of workers either received no pay or were forced to accept only partial settlements for wages owed after the collapse of three firms, one of them owned by a senior member of the ruling Al Thani family.
That the Qataris, despite some efforts to overhaul the treatment of migrants, find themselves once again facing harsh criticism should come as no surprise. In June of this year an investigation by the German broadcaster WDR found unpaid wages to be a recurrent theme for thousands of Nepalese workers on projects in Qatar. It featured interviews with migrants who alleged a range of additional abuse including expired visas, poor accommodation and hazardous working conditions. Other investigations have detailed the casual way in which the authorities treat the sudden deaths of migrant workers.
Much of the abuse can be traced back to the notorious kafala system which ties employees to their employers and makes it virtually impossible to move to another job. The Qataris have for several years claimed that the system was about to be abolished. In December 2016 the BBC reported that "Qatar is ending its labour sponsorship system…It says a new contract-based law will replace the "kafala" system, ensuring greater flexibility and protection." However, nearly three years on, as the Amnesty report makes clear, kafala is still very much in use, despite whatever legislation has been put in place to end it.
Indeed this is a recurrent theme with Qatar: legislation is placed on the books but is acted upon, if at all, only in part. In October 2017, for example, the Qatari government reached an agreement with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to overhaul its labour system, after the ILO had used significant pressure and a major media campaign – using the stick of the World Cup – to force the pace of change. As the ILO looked approvingly on, the government committed to enhance access to justice for migrants.
Its main way of doing so was by reforming the system by which workers can make complaints, replacing the country's notoriously ineffective labour courts with new "Committees for the Settlement of Labour Disputes". The committees began operations in March 2018. Amnesty calls it a "potentially promising reform" especially as the committees are supposed to issue judgements on cases brought before them and ensure workers received remedy within six weeks.
"In some cases," the report notes "migrant workers have seen the benefits." "However," it continues, "the reality for many migrant workers is much less rosy and the profound challenges still faced by workers seeking justice through the Committees – particularly lengthy processes and non-payment of compensation – are well represented in cases involving hundreds of workers that are highlighted in this report." Workers like Jack who only wants the money owed him so "I can go home to my wife and son."
The Amnesty report cites other examples of undelivered promises, including a programme announced 30 October of last year that is supposed to assist workers who have not been paid by their employers. The plan, called the Workers' Support and Insurance Fund, followed on from a law approved by the Emir to support victims who have suffered labour abuse and are experiencing financial hardship.
Previously, impoverished migrants with no income were forced to pursue their employer for wages owed in the civil courts, with lengthy delays, the requirement to pay fees and outcomes that were rarely enforced. The fund is supposed to end all that and to lift the burden of responsibility from the workers by providing them with the money they are owed. The government then goes after the employers and requires them to reimburse the fund. It sounds good, in theory.
However the reality is something else: the Amnesty report tellingly notes "as of the date of publication, Qatari authorities had not yet operationalized the fund and no worker has received any support from this source."
Jack and hundreds of other migrants are stranded without an income, living in bleak conditions, surviving on donated food. It is a story that should shame Qatar and set alarm bells ringing hard in the headquarters of FIFA, football's governing body. It is a story that should bring the ILO back into the fray. The challenge of ending migrant abuse cannot be left on a page to gather dust. Legislation must be acted upon, regulations enforced and commitments made by the government fully delivered upon. And this must be done at speed.
Otherwise the chorus of those who question why Qatar deserves the World Cup will only grow.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.