Qatari Labor Practices and the Not-So-Beautiful Game

By Meagan Froemming

“Up to 600 deaths per year in furtherance of Qatar’s World Cup 2022 dream,” says the International Trade Union Confederation in its recent damning report entitled, The Case Against Qatar.[1] Up to 600 deaths per year to ensure one of the world’s most popular and lucrative sporting events can go on. Qatar’s planned World Cup facilities are massive in scale and scope: Qatar is on pace to spend approximately $100 billion USD on infrastructure for the tournament, including “nine state-of-the-art stadiums…20 billion USD worth of new roads, 4 billion USD for a causeway connecting Qatar to Bahrain, 24 billion USD for a high-speed rail network…[and] 55,000 hotel rooms… .”[2]

These numbers are impressive. Behind them, however, is kafālah, the foreign guest worker system that facilitates the exploitation of migrant laborers. In this post, I explore the abusive practices of Qatar’s labor system, many of which are coming under international scrutiny for the first time thanks to the World Cup preparations.

The kafālah system is historically rooted in a Bedouin tradition whereby community members “temporarily [grant] strangers protection and even affiliation for specific purposes.” In its modern Qatari incarnation, kafālah requires that all foreign workers have an in-country sponsor to work legally there. This requirement is not itself particularly onerous to the worker, nor is Qatar alone in instituting such a sponsorship regime. However, in practice, sponsorship extends beyond entry, essentially granting the sponsor full control of the guest worker’s private life. Qatari law stipulates that the sponsor take on total economic and legal responsibility for the foreign worker, requiring him to have his sponsor’s permission to “open a bank account, obtain an alcohol permit, or carry out other numerous activities considered basic rights elsewhere.”[3]

The kafālah system also includes a sponsored exit provision that exacerbates the significant power imbalance between guest worker and sponsor. Exit permission requires a guest worker to obtain permission from his entry sponsor in order to leave Qatar.[4] If the sponsor does not freely grant such permission, the worker is essentially barred from leaving the country, as there are no effective legal pathways for a worker to pursue redress in Qatar. To be sure, an employee could sue his or her employer for labor violations under Qatari law, but that same employee has no unemployment benefits regime to underwrite that course of action. Effectively, this structure means that the plaintiff-worker must possess independent financial means to bring legal action an employer for mistreatment, lost wages, and the like. If a worker prevails in an action against his sponsor-employer, victory is Pyrrhic at best. That is, if  a plaintiff-worker utilizes his own financial means in order to simply gain the right to leave Qatar – a country he presumably entered in response to a lack of financial opportunity at home – he is doubly disadvantaged by not retaining the wages he came for and by being likely ineligible to return to Qatar.[5]  Furthermore, if the plaintiff-worker brings an action on grounds unrelated to exit sponsorship, unpaid wages or unfair practices, for example, the suit necessarily terminates the sponsor-worker relationship. Without a sponsor, the worker must return to his home country and is, in seeking to enforce his rights, forced out of Qatar. Thus, to say that the kafālah system has become essentially a system of indentured servitude and even, some might say, of modern day slavery is not purely hyperbolic.

As a signatory to the ILO agreements on fair labor and migrant worker practices, the government of Qatar is in contravention of its international obligations.

Government pronouncements indicate, at least publicly, Qatar’s intention to abolish the kafālah system.[6] Such statements may explain the International Labor Organization’s hesitance to push aggressively for a change in Qatari labor policies. However, few portend meaningful reform even in light of the negative attention brought on Qatar’s labor practices by the World Cup preparation process. For example, Azfar Khan, the ILO’s senior labor migration advisor in the Arab states told the Guardian newspaper that “despite pledges to do otherwise Qatar did not properly inspect workplace conditions and there was ‘no coherence’ in the state’s policies over the use of migrant labour.” [7]

Reputational inducements seem to have no impact; labor practices appear concretized when it comes to the foreign guest worker framework in Qatar – even when those with the power to control practices pay lip service to change.

Thanks to World Cup 2022, there are more parties than ever before with the capacity to insist on better conditions for guest workers in Qatar. Unfortunately, from FIFA to the ILO and the Qatari government, all seem to lack sufficient will to bring about change.

An alternative approach to ameliorating workers’ rights is therefore required. Labor rights reformers should shift their efforts and attention toward the entities controlling the disbursement of World Cup-related funds in Qatar, rather than looking to national legislative reform in the first instance. If funding is withheld and stadium building grinds to a halt, Qatar may feel more inclined toward meeting international labor standards. There is further downstream economic linkage that may be exploited to improve labor practices in Qatar, as well, between the corporate advertisers supporting the World Cup, FIFA and the Qatari government. If corporate sponsorship can be convinced to withdraw financial support from the games until labor reform is undertaken in Qatar, greater engagement with reform may occur.

Observers agree that, even with the increased attention on guest worker abuse in Qatar, labor reform is unlikely to take root there any time soon. There is hope, however, that continued conversation about the human impact of the World Cup in Qatar will encourage FIFA to select future host nations more carefully. It may be too late to ameliorate the tragedy in Qatar, but a strong and unified global voice pushing against abuses occurring in the name of this tournament may ensure that FIFA consider more than just profits in years to come.


[1] Robert Booth, Qatar World Cup construction ‘will leave 4000 migrant workers dead,’ The Guardian: Sept. 26, 2013.

[2] Pete Pattisson, Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup ‘slaves’, The Guardian: Sept. 25, 2013.

[3] Id.

[4] Consult Beydoun’s work.

[5] No evidence can be found that such legal action has ever led to a judgment in favor of the employee in which lost or past wages, or remuneration for working conditions and any corollary challenges growing out of such conditions, have ever been awarded to foreign workers.

[6] Qatar’s National Committee for Human Rights, comprised of civil society and governance stakeholders, is quoted as saying that kafālah includes “positive aspects that help control migration, but it also has negative aspects such as employers not paying wages on time, seizure of workers’ passports and the reluctance to transfer sponsorships.”

[7] Qatari officials announced that they “had delayed all studies related to sponsorship amendments…”

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