Migrant workers in Qatar held in near-slavery

You think your job is bad? Overworked and underpaid? Spare a moment to contemplate the fate of thousands of Bangladeshi workers reduced to near slavery in the tiny oil-rich country of Qatar, and perhaps your shift at Starbucks won’t seem so bad.

Two of Britain’s largest construction firms – Balfour Beatty and Interserve – were accused this week of widespread violations of workers’ rights in connection with the use of migrants to build sports stadiums for Qatar’s upcoming soccer World Cup and other high-profile vanity projects such as shopping malls and leisure centers.

The allegations are shocking in their Dickensian qualities. The workers have their passports confiscated, and are forced to repay significant debts to their recruiters. In essence, these workers must pay for the privilege of being able to work. When actually paid for their labor, which is often erratically, they frequently receive significantly less than what was originally promised. Workers who request to leave before their contractual commitments are up are forced to continue to work against their will. Qatar’s “kafala” system grants an employer a very heavy hand when it comes to dealing with these migrants.

To give a sense of scale in the population numbers involved, it is useful to recall that, of the over 2 million people present in Qatar on any given day, 90 percent of them are migrant workers.

Facilitating these practices is the common use of intermediate companies that supply labor, allowing the constructions firms to keep these individuals off their books and at arms-length, which apparently makes the imposition of exploitative treatment considerably easier. The subcontracting labor supply chain which has done so much to transform the global workplace seems also to have a darker, more morally ambivalent side.

Although numerous statutes promise Qatari workers minimum levels of fair and humane treatment, their implementations appears spotty and half-hearted.

Both Balfour Beatty and Interserve quickly responded with media campaigns insisting that they are following industry best practices and meticulously comply with Qatari law. The reality on the ground, however, differs substantially from these promises of high standards and codes of conduct.

These scandals are only the latest in a prolonged campaign against Qatar by the international community, including at the forefront organizations such as Amnesty International and even the United Nations. At issue here is the tension between local norms, which can be either actively or tacitly supportive of exploitative labor regimes, and international standards that are attempting to emphasize best practices and provide for international standards.

Early this month, a new provision of British law came into effect that requires companies to regularly assess whether slavery played a role in their supply chains. Unfortunately the Modern Slavery Act allows British companies to avoid discussing the activities of international subsidiaries, which, in the case of firms operating in Qatar, could be very embarrassing.

Despite the intense negative publicity that global soccer supremo FIFA has attracted in recent years, the sport’s governing body appears indifferent to the mounting scandal in Qatar as work continues apace for the 2022 World Cup.

Even though a number of high-profile international football teams have begun to take advantage of the Qatari facilities in recent years, many critics claim that the inhumane treatment on migrant workers is a stain on the global game. It is a stark contrast between the bright lights of international soccer and the squalid, inhuman conditions in which many of these migrant workers are trapped.

Despite a comprehensive audit of labor law and practice commissioned two years ago by the Qatari government, few concrete steps have actually been taken. Instead, a black market for near-slave labor has been allowed to grow and fester in this tiny emirate.

Unsurprisingly, FIFA spokespersons – like their colleagues working feverishly to support clients such as Balfour Beatty and Interserve – have rushed to defend current practices and proposed a number of alternative, collaborative steps that could be taken to further improve the plight of migrant workers in Qatar.

While the United Nations ponders whether or not to launch formal charges against Qatar for its exploitative labor arrangements, the rest of us are left to merely contemplate a troublesome question – namely, if, when we are comfortably ensconced on our L-shaped sofa, watching our favorite teams at the 2022 World Cup on our 88-inch flatscreen TVs, whether we will actually be concerned that the vast stadiums in which these matches are being played, as well as the entertainment zones and hospitality centers and simple pubs, restaurants and hotels that encircle them, were built on the backs of exploited migrant labor reduced to working in near-slavery situations?

Ultimately, Qatar and nations like it that exploit migrant labor will only reform their behavior when the rest of the world extracts meaningful consequences from them for their actions. Until then, the exploitation will simply continue.

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