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The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s Construction Sector Ahead of the World Cup

November 17, 2013

Qatar's population is growing at a truly staggering rate. Between August 2012 and August 2013 it grew by 10.5 per cent. Put another way, twenty new people are added to the population every hour.

This growth is driven primarily by the recruitment of low-paid migrant workers to support an infrastructure development programme that, according to some estimates, will amount to more than US$220 billion over the coming decade. There are 1.38 million foreign nationals working in Qatar, 94 per cent of the total workforce. The majority are from South and Southeast Asia, and this number is expected to rise significantly in the coming years, with one International Labour Organization (ILO) expert estimating that the country will need to recruit one million extra migrant workers in the next decade. In the construction sector, the vast majority of these workers are likely to be male.

The construction, which is already underway, is designed to turn Doha from a capital city into a regional and global hub. A new airport is being built, while a metro system and international railway system are being planned. Roads will be overhauled, sewage systems will be revamped, and a new port will open – in part simply to cope with the massive demand for raw materials on other projects.

At the heart of these projects is the 2022 World Cup, Qatar's most high-profile and ambitious project yet. When Qatar made its bid for the World Cup in 2010, the plan was for 12 stadiums, including nine new ones, though this may be revised downwards. The total cost of the specific World Cup projects is estimated at US$4 billion. But for the World Cup to take place, the wider infrastructure planned must be there to support it, not to mention the thousands of hotel rooms which will also need to be constructed to meet the demand from fans.

The awarding of the 2022 World Cup has brought increased global prominence to Qatar, but also intensified scrutiny. Particular attention has been paid to temperatures in Qatar's summer, which can reach up to 45˚C, with proposals to hold the tournament during the winter months.

Since accounts of the working conditions of Nepalese migrants were published in the international media in September 2013, a spotlight has also been focused on the treatment of construction workers in Qatar and the potential for migrant workers involved in the World Cup construction programme to face serious exploitation. On the issue of migrant labour, Qatar's international reputation is at stake.

The scale of abuse

The abuses against migrant workers in the construction sector in Qatar are grim. Amnesty International's research reveals widespread exploitation of migrant workers at the hands of their employers. The abuse, which takes place against a backdrop of discriminatory attitudes against many categories of migrant workers, includes:

  • workers arriving in Qatar to find that the terms and conditions of their work are different to those they had been promised during the recruitment process – including salaries being lower than promised;
  • workers having their pay withheld for months, or not being paid at all;
  • employers leaving workers "undocumented" and therefore at risk of being detained by the authorities;
  • migrant workers having their passports confiscated and being prevented from leaving the country by their employers;
  • workers being made to work excessive (sometimes extreme) hours and employers failing to protect workers' health and safety adequately; and
  • workers being housed in squalid accommodation.

The impact of such practices on individuals can easily be underestimated. Each of these practices, on its own, is unacceptable. But many workers face the cumulative effect of being subjected to several components of such abuse simultaneously, an experience which can be difficult to capture.

During interviews, researchers have encountered many workers in severe psychological distress due to the treatment they had received and their sense of powerlessness to resolve their own situations. Many spoke movingly of the trauma they felt at not being able to send money back to their home countries for months at a time, at the thought of their families being harassed by moneylenders and having to sell possessions to pay the rent on their homes.

Some of the situations that Amnesty International found were deep crises, with large groups of migrant workers – undocumented through no fault of their own – facing a range of serious problems simultaneously: not being paid for six or nine months; not being able to get out of the country; not having enough – or any – food; and being housed in very poor accommodation with poor sanitation, or no electricity.

Researchers carried out interviews in candlelight and met workers who had been sleeping on the roof of their accommodation because their rooms had no air conditioning, despite the very high summer temperatures.

ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labour, to which Qatar is a state party, defines forced labour as encompassing two key elements: work that the person has not offered themselves for voluntarily and which is extracted under threat of a penalty. The ILO has emphasized that "menace of penalty" refers not only to criminal sanctions but also to various forms of coercion, such as threats, violence, retention of identity documents, confinement or nonpayment of wages:

"The key issue is that workers should be free to leave an employment relationship without losing any rights or privileges. Examples are the threat to lose a wage that is due to the worker or the right to be protected from violence."

Amnesty International found cases where people were engaged in work for which they had not offered themselves voluntarily – because they had been deceived about their terms or conditions, or had pay withheld for months at a time. They faced credible threats of penalties if they were to stop working. The threatened penalties included withholding passports, withholding permission to leave the country and failure to provide pending salaries. These cases constitute forced labour. Where migrants had clearly been deceived into situations of forced labour, they were also victims of human trafficking.

Many officials at both the Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Interior stated to Amnesty International researchers their commitment to protecting migrant workers' rights. But officials from all government bodies tend to downplay the scale of the abuse that migrant workers are subjected to in Qatar. Most officials stated that while there may be isolated or individual cases of exploitation, there are no significant wider problems to be addressed.

Amnesty International would not claim that all migrant workers in Qatar are subject to serious abuse, as researchers spoke to men and women who were broadly satisfied with their working conditions. Some employers are evidently committed to ensuring labour standards. Nevertheless Amnesty International's research – and review of the available independent quantitative data – leads the organization to conclude that exploitation of migrant workers is routine and widespread. This is based on the following:

  • Workers interviewed by Amnesty International's researchers (this includes impromptu interviews and those where researchers were alerted to cases of individuals facing specific problems) gave consistent accounts of exploitation practices. These accounts were, in turn, consistent with recent independent quantitative research confirming that large numbers of migrant workers are subjected to confiscation of personal documents by their employers, deception as to the terms and type of work for which they are being recruited, and not being paid on time.
  • In many of the cases of labour exploitation which Amnesty International investigated, the abuses suffered by workers were not only due to the actions or failures of an individual employer but were clearly linked to systemic problems in the way migrant workers' employment is regulated, and the procedures for them to obtain identity documents and leave the country.
  • Some employers have confirmed in interviews with researchers that they engage in practices that are inconsistent with labour standards and Qatari law. In these interviews they have indicated that practices such as delays in paying workers for periods of several months and preventing migrant workers from leaving the country are not unusual.
  • Interviews with representatives of embassies of labour sending countries and migrant worker community groups also confirmed that cases of labour exploitation are rife and that avenues for workers to achieve redress are ineffective.
  • Amnesty International has documented serious cases where large numbers of workers have been subjected to severe exploitation over periods of many months, and despite the workers seeking assistance from the authorities, their situation has not been resolved adequately.

Amnesty International's research exposes how labour exploitation in Qatar is due, in large part, to serious flaws in the country's legal and policy framework for labour migration, rather than a simple narrative of Qatari nationals exploiting foreigners. Indeed a number of migrant workers who had experienced terrible abuses gave examples of Qatari nationals who had helped them in times of crisis. While Amnesty International has documented cases where abuse involved Qatari nationals, several migrant workers described how other foreign nationals were the main actors involved in their abuse. Some of the construction companies Amnesty International has found to be engaged in exploitative practices are local branches of multinational businesses. Labour exploitation in Qatar is rooted in the processes by which people are recruited and employed, which facilitate and enable employers – of whatever nationality – to subject workers to exploitative practices.


The factors that lead to abuse are varied and interrelated and the measures to address them therefore need to be wide-ranging. Firstly, there are problems with laws and policies that facilitate the abuse of migrant workers' rights. In particular, the Sponsorship Law and the Labour Law should be reformed to remove clauses which are creating a permissive context for abuse. Specific problematic provisions within these laws should be repealed or revised, including:

  • the requirement for workers to obtain their current employer's permission before changing jobs (known as a "No objection certificate" or "NOC");
  • the requirement for workers to obtain their employer's permission before leaving the country (the "exit permit");
  • the explicit exclusion of certain categories of workers, including domestic workers, from the protections of the Labour Law; and
  • the fact that only Qatari workers are allowed to form or join trade unions.

Amnesty International considers that the sponsorship system currently in place should be fundamentally reformed. In the interim, however, there are major issues with the way that the Sponsorship Law is policed; at present migrant workers who have attempted to leave an exploitative situation are at risk of detention for "absconding" (if workers leave their sponsor without permission, they are considered to have "absconded") or not holding a valid residence permit.

In addition, many of the laws and regulations which should protect workers are not effectively enforced at present. This particularly applies to the Labour Law and its associated decrees, and the provision in the Sponsorship Law banning the confiscation of passports by employers. In some cases this lack of enforcement appears to be caused by the government not having a sufficient number of trained officials, while in others there seems to be a lack of will among officials to enforce the law. Amnesty International urges the authorities to proactively enforce these laws.

Individuals whose labour rights are abused face significant obstacles when they try to access justice. In particular, the Labour Court system is not fit for purpose, requiring workers to pay fees to have their cases proceed and forcing them to wait months and attend multiple sessions in the hope of recovering lost wages and other compensation. The Ministries of Labour and Justice should overhaul the labour complaints and Labour Court systems to give workers better access to justice.

Where companies claim to be experiencing financial difficulties and have apparently failed to keep reserve funds to pay workers and assist them in leaving the country, migrant workers' ordeals can last many months, during which time they can face the risk of being arrested for not having valid residence permits. Workers in these crisis situations would be well served by much closer collaboration between government departments and agencies to expedite resolution of their cases. For this reason Amnesty International urges the Government of Qatar to consider setting up an integrated cross-government unit tasked with addressing and resolving such labour crises.

Amnesty International recognizes that governments of countries from which most migrant workers come also have responsibilities for protecting migrants from abuse. Networks of recruitment agents and brokers in both the countries of departure and destination operate to deceive people with false promises over terms and conditions of work. Action to prevent such deception requires cooperation between labour sending and receiving countries.

While this report focuses on abuses against migrant workers in Qatar, and the majority of its recommendations are for the Government of Qatar, Amnesty International's 2011 report False Promises: Exploitation and forced labour of Nepalese migrant workers called on the Government of Nepal to ensure that its legislation in relation to false or substituted contracts was implemented, to stop rogue recruitment agents from trafficking migrant workers for exploitation and forced labour. The organization is currently carrying out research into recruitment practices in other countries of origin for migrant workers who come to the Gulf and plans to publish this in the coming months.