LONDON - Thousands of migrant workers in Qatar are not getting paid by their employers and are being forced to live in dire conditions, according to Amnesty International.
Despite pledging to overhaul labor laws for migrants in 2018, Amnesty said the Qatari government has failed to implement its policies on unpaid wages, as the kafala employment system continues to give companies wide-ranging powers over migrant employees.
With Qatar due to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, the human rights group is calling on the international community to put more pressure on the Gulf state to improve the conditions for its estimated 2 million migrant workers.
The country’s successful World Cup bid has drawn attention to the plight of migrant workers, with many of them now involved in building stadiums and infrastructure.
Great on paper
Following global criticism, Qatar agreed to establish committees to resolve labor disputes and set up an insurance fund to support workers taking legal action against their employers.
“Things on paper look great. However, the reality on the ground is once they do not get their wages and they try to take their cases to court, they are stuck in a long legal battle, still taking between three and eight months to get a court judgment," said Amnesty's May Romanos. "And even then, the money is not guaranteed at the end. Many of them either give up hope and go back home with nothing, or stay in Qatar living in dire conditions hoping that this money would come."
Amnesty followed the cases of more than 2,000 migrant workers working for three agencies in the construction and cleaning sectors: Hamton International, Hamad bin Khaled bin Hamad (HKH), and United Cleaning. The agencies stopped paying wages, citing financial difficulties, before ceasing operations and ending their contracts. While some workers received limited compensation, most went home with nothing.
“They are not paid. They have interest loans back home, which means that they are in debt. They are not paid in Qatar. They struggle. They can't leave. They live in dire conditions in the camp — no food, no water, no electricity,” Romanos said.
The Qatari government insists it has made meaningful reforms, and claims it has intervened to help migrants settle with their employers. Amnesty says there is an urgent need for more judges to speed up the committee hearings and for the compensation fund to be fully operational.
Romanos fears global attention will fall away after the 2022 World Cup. “We believe the window of opportunity is closing down. If things are not changing within the maximum next year or so, I think there will not be any more opportunity to change the system.”
As the construction projects near completion, Amnesty predicts the largely male migrant workforce could be replaced with female workers for the service and tourism sectors, who could be vulnerable to further exploitation.