Inside Story
The plight of Qatar's migrant workers
A report says migrant workers in the country risk serious abuse in the run-up to the 2022 football World Cup.
Last Modified: 14 Jun 2012 09:50

A recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that foreign workers in Qatar risk serious abuse in the run-up to the 2022 football World Cup.

Qatar is the home of the Al Jazeera satellite television network and is the world's richest country on a per capita basis.

"The fundamental responsibility rests with the authorities of Qatar .... Last year, 161 Nepali construction workers died … this is a situation of industrial anarchy. The way migrant workers are tricked into binding contracts, almost a form of modern-day slavery, is completely unacceptable."

- Tim Noonan, a trade union campaigns director

It also has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world.

There are an estimated 1.2 million migrant workers living in the country. Many of them work in the construction sector, and many more will be needed to build the stadiums and other infrastructure required for the 2022 football World Cup.

Based on interviews with 73 migrant workers in Qatar, the HRW report says these migrant workers are at risk of serious abuse and exploitation. Complaints include late or unpaid wages and very poor working and living conditions.

According to Qatar's labour ministry, one of the most common complaints made against companies relates to unpaid wages. The ministry says it is trying to improve the monitoring of labour laws and punish companies that violate them.

Qatar's sponsorship system, known as kafala, prohibits workers from changing jobs or leaving the country without their sponsor's approval. A worker's sponsor is usually their employer. Qatari law also prevents workers from organising unions or staging strikes.

"There is a lack of governance and a lack of ability to enforce or implement any of these laws, whether that's just malintention or a lack of capacity, the main problem is the sponsorship system whereby the employers are the ones really given the ability to govern migration."

- Zahra Babar, an assistant research director

Qatar is not the only Gulf state with a large population of migrant workers. In many parts of the region, foreign workers outnumber locals. And despite the allegations of migrant workers being exploited in Gulf countries, some steps have been taken to begin to improve their situation.

In May, Qatar's labour ministry said it was considering scrapping the sponsorship system. Bahrain abandoned its sponsorship programme in 2009 and Kuwait has announced that it is following suit.

Earlier this month, the UAE and Saudi Arabia voted in favour of a convention by the International Labour Organization that establishes global standards for how domestic workers are treated.

Inside Story asks: Will Qatar and other Gulf countries protect the rights of their foreign workers? What will it take to do so and just how complicated is the issue across the region?

Al Jazeera invited government representatives to take part in this programme but the requests were declined.

Presenter Ghida Fakhry discusses these questions with guests: Zahra Babar, the assistant director of research at the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University in Doha; and Tim Noonan, the director of campaigns and communications at the International Trade Unions Confederation.


  • Qatar has a population of 1.7 million, of which 94 per cent are believed to be migrants.
  • An estimated 80 per cent of the 7.5 million people in the United Arab Emirates are migrants.
  • Two-thirds of the 2.7 million people in Kuwait are migrant workers.
  • In Bahrain migrants make up 1/4 of its 1.2 million population.
  • Almost 30 per cent of the 2.7 million people in Oman are foreigners.
  • The largest Gulf state, Saudi Arabia, has a population of 27 million of which around 30 per cent are migrants.


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