DOHA, Qatar — Qatar is the richest country per capita in the world. Home to 1.9 million people, over 80 percent of whom are foreign workers, Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world. Despite being the majority population, migrant workers can earn as little €4.90 ($6.54) a day. The country has been criticized by the media for its foreign worker labor conditions and its selection as the FIFA 2022 host country.
This is not the whole story however. To some, Qatar is a wonderful and welcoming nation. One 20 year-old Qatari citizen who shares this perspective is Sharifa Almarri.
Almarri explains, “I would of course like them to see my country as a peaceful, beautiful and generous country. Especially my government, it is doing what it [can]to help… Palestine and the region to take their rights back.”
Almarri went on to describe the Eid, a four-day festival in all Muslim and Arabic countries, and how her home country of Qatar will not be celebrating this year in an effort to show their “solidarity with Gaza.”
When asked what she appreciates most about her country, Almarri responded, “Free education, free health care, no electricity and water bills, no taxes! If I have to choose one [thing], I would say the royal family. I really appreciate our royal family. They are very generous… if you take a look at our neighboring countries they might have even more oil and gas than we do, but they chose to keep it to themselves. People [there are]always complaining, but for us never, because [our government]used that money to [do]something good, educating the people and taking care of them.”
According to the Washington Post, Qatari citizens are also provided with “access to high-paying jobs in the public sector, subsidized fuel, interest free housing loans and stipends for education abroad.”
But migrant workers typically have the opposite experience. Most of these workers live in impoverished conditions.
The majority of the foreign workforce arrives from South Asia. These workers pay job recruiters in their home country hundreds or thousands of dollars in order to secure employment in Qatar. The working conditions have been referred to as modern day slavery by such organizations as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Workers report that the employers confiscate their passports and threaten wage garnishments for damaging materials or taking sick days. The workers commonly work 12 to 15 hour shifts in high temperatures, sometimes above 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
It has been reported that more than 180 workers died last year in Qatar and that 1,000 more have died in the process of constructing FIFA projects thus far. This equates to more than one worker per day. The majority of deaths were associated with dehydration, cardiac arrest and unexplained illness. There have been a few cases of suicide reported.
Workers also report crowded lodging, sleeping ten people to a room, and low wages averaging $4,000 dollars annually. Migrant workers are assigned to a domestic sponsor who has control over their pay, living space and work freedoms, making them unable to leave the country at will. Some believe this is due to companies’ monetary loss when workers leave, since these companies pay for several things including living arrangements.
According to the Washington Post, interviews with “Qatari citizens and expatriates” have shown that there is an “ingrained set of local attitudes towards race and class” that makes empathy difficult. However, this is not to say that all Qatari citizens are not empathetic to the problem.
Almarri wrote, “Regarding work conditions. It is really hot here so it can be uncomfortable, I always see them working when I go out and I feel sorry because it is really hot during the day… They live in another city called Sinayah. I’ve never been there. But I I can tell you… [the]majority of them are Indian… and we don’t speak the same language so we barely communicate.”
Almarri goes on to explain that there have been reforms to protect workers rights. These reforms include eliminating the requirement that workers have to inform employers before leaving the country and implementing a more modern employment system based on contracts.
Al-Khulaifi explains, “We know there is much more to do, but we are making definite progress.”
The government has also developed an electronic complaint system and is in the process of constructing living spaces for an additional 150,000 workers. It has planned $200 billion worth of construction projects in preparation for FIFA 2022.
The Washington Post notes, “Foreign analysts who follow the country closely say some members of Qatar’s royal family may be serious about labor reforms, but are up against a wall of domestic obstacles.”
Nasser al-Khater, the spokesman for the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, explained that this controversy is an opportunity “for change in Qatar and in the region.”
The committee reports that Qatar is taking the labor issue seriously and is in the process of developing a contractual set of standards that forces companies working on FIFA projects to provide certain working conditions for employees. Recent criticisms also include allegations that Qatar is bribing FIFA officials.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter strongly dismissed these allegations, noting that British journalists were “motivated by racism.” Blatter told the Confederation of African Football Congress in Sao Paulo that the media reports were a “storm against FIFA.” The Swiss agreed with this statement, adding, “Sadly there’s a great deal of discrimination and racism and this hurts me. It really makes me sad.”
Almarri expressed similar sentiments, stating, “Lately British news have been criti[cal]… [they]say false things so th[at]FIFA would choose [the]UK over Qatar, the news [was]just too much. Talking about Qatar. They were so racist. [The] UK was angry that Russia got 2018 and Qatar got 2022. UK news was all over Qatar, [saying]that we bought the world cup with the oil money and that we don’t deserve it.”
The foreign workers issue is a poverty issue, and it needs to be addressed. It may be better economically speaking if these workers were more integrated into the economy, allowing Qatar to thrive further. However, Qatar’s government is working toward addressing these issues.
The country has instituted many liberal reforms since 1995, including gender rights including giving women the right to vote and run for political office. It is safe to say the country is progressing quickly in terms of modern social norms and is home to many compassionate individuals, both in its government and citizenry.
To say that these working conditions are solely the fault of Qatar would be inaccurate. The progress being made by their government speaks otherwise, but as mentioned earlier by ministry official Al Khoulaifi, “There is much more to do, but we are making definite progress.”
– Christopher Kolezynski
Sources: Interview with Qatari Citizen Sharifa Almarri, The Guardian, Washington Post, BBC, Deutsche Welle, CIA, Huffington Post, Think Progress
Photo: Washington Post