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

November 17, 2013

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

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.