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All eyes are on Brazil this month, but it’s Qatar’s migrant labour workforce we should be looking at

In readiness for the next World Cup in Qatar in 2022, construction is well underway. Qatar depends on migrant labour from poor countries for its construction workforce and many reports have documented instances of abuse. Most blame the kafala (sponsorship system) and several call for it to be abolished.  

While there are issues with the kafala that should be addressed, it is as much the problem of worker abuse and the fragmented structure of the construction industry, as it is with the kafala system that is common throughout the Gulf.

The issue that causes most distress to construction workers in Qatar (many of whom have paid recruitment fees and are in debt to moneylenders) is late or non-payment of wages.

This is a major challenge to the construction industry worldwide. The root cause is the pressure for a flexible supply of labour and the system that has developed to accommodate it. In the past contractors in many countries (including the Gulf) employed a large workforce directly and bore the risk themselves of sometimes having more workers on their payroll than were needed. Today contractors around the world outsource the bulk of their labour requirements, thus passing the task of balancing labour needs, and the risks involved, to subcontractors, particularly labour-only subcontractors.

In most countries it is the workers who will ultimately bear the risk of a flexible labour system, with only short-term contracts and inevitable periods of unemployment. But under the kafala the employment contract is for two years, so the risk rests firmly on the subcontractor who is supposed to pay its workers whether or not it has work for them to do.

The added risk to subcontractors of late payment by the client and the slow flow of cash down the subcontracting chain is well recognised and has been detailed in a recent Engineers Against Poverty (EAP) report. Small companies working as subcontractors and labour-only subcontractors in Qatar (many of them also migrants) have liquidity problems and they cannot pay their workers until they themselves have received payment for the work they have done.

The EAP report recommended steps that could be taken by the industry to tackle the issue of late or non-payment of workers’ wages. The recently released report commissioned by the Qatari Government from DLA Piper has endorsed all of EAP’s recommendations and suggested ways in which the kafala could be modified to further protect the workers.

The Qatari Government should endorse these recommendations and also look at commissioning research into the constraints facing contractors at the bottom end of the subcontracting chain.  Of course subcontractors who deliberately abuse the system and mistreat the workers should be punished, but assistance is also needed to help them to meet their obligations, as they are the ones who are carrying the work force.

  • Jill Wells is senior policy and research advisor at Engineers Against Poverty

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