The 2022 World Cup and Qatar’s Foreign Labour
by Piercamillo Falasca
The 2018 FIFA World Cup was held in a country which, four years earlier, had occupied the sovereign territory of another country and which had unilaterally proclaimed the annexation of a part of the latter. Yet the controversies that accompanied the start of the sporting event were in no way comparable to the heated protests and the attention that the Western media are giving to Qatar, host of the FIFA 2022 World Cup. There is little doubt that such variance is rooted in simple mathematics: Russia is a huge country with global interests and Qatar is relatively small with select interests. But it is evident that the severity of the scrutiny paid to Qatar risks turning into a real campaign of denigration against a country which, by applying to host an event such as the World Cup, had voluntarily offered itself to the international spotlight and to the scrutiny of public opinion.
Qatar has accompanied the organisation of the mega sporting event with a visible and measurable process of modernisation of the area that was most frequently singled out as problematic: the labour market. Above all, in recent years, and certainly by virtue of the pressure exerted by the international community and by the spotlights on the World Cup, Qatar adopted various reforms aimed at improving the conditions of the many foreign workers involved in the economy of the country and in particular in the construction of stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup.
It is debatable whether these reforms are sufficient, but it is difficult to dispute the proactive approach offered by the Qatari government. According to the “Labour reforms in the State of Qatar” report drafted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a specialised agency of the United Nations:
‘…in just a few years, the Government of Qatar has undertaken comprehensive labour reforms to improve the conditions of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Qatar. In doing so, it adopted new legislation, introduced new or improved existing labour administration systems and enhanced labour relations. While this is still a work in progress, and there are gaps in implementation, the reforms have already yielded benefits for workers, employers and the economy more broadly.’1
According to the ILO report, thanks to the reforms adopted, roughly 2 million workers will now enjoy better protection, in particular due to the elimination of the kafala system according to which workers needed the consent of the employer to terminate the contract and change jobs. The kafala determined a condition of excessive dependence of the worker on the employer, encouraging exploitation. With the reforms adopted, workers can change jobs at any time of the contract, subject to a two month’s notice. The repeal of the kafala has favoured labour mobility, leading almost 350,000 workers to change jobs between 1 November 2020 and 31 August 2022. The legislation on the minimum wage and a new regulation on limits to outdoor work in the summer months entered into force in 2021. Together with the improvement of the conditions of workers’ access to the disputed judicial system, today Qatar offers much better conditions of labour protection than in the past. There are, as is evident from the ILO report itself, weaknesses, especially in the field of domestic work. But the path traced is an important starting point, which would have not necessarily arrived so quickly without the hosting of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
The real challenge for Qatar, for the entire Gulf region, and for its international partners, is to deepen and structuralise the reforms of the labour market after the World Cup, when the matches will be over, the Cup will have been handed over to winners and the spotlights will have gone out. It is an issue that goes hand in hand with the more general challenge of the diversification and pluralisation of the economies of the GCC countries, because without a concrete and stable enhancement and protection of human capital it will be difficult to produce those productivity gains necessary to transform an extractive economy into a creative one with high added value.
17 November 2022
1 International Labour Organisation, ‘Labour reforms in the State of Qatar: Coming together around a shared vision,’ https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---arabstates/---ro-beirut/---ilo-qatar/documents/publication/wcms_859843.pdf.