Qatar’s ‘kafala system’ ends in January, says World Cup organiser


Hassan Al-Thawadi, the Qatari official in charge of organising the most controversial edition of the football World Cup since the tournament’s inception in 1930, has claimed that criticism of his country’s treatment of migrant workers will have a ripple effect that will improve regional labour standards, in an interview in the Qatari capital, Doha.

The 2022 World Cup has been dogged by criticism of its host’s kafala system, which ties migrant workers to so-called sponsorship by their employer, meaning they cannot move jobs or leave the country without the employer’s approval.

Al-Thawadi, the secretary general of the supreme committee organising the event, said a definitive end to the kafala system would be set out next month and he wanted reforms to apply not just to workers employed on World Cup projects but across Qatar and more widely.

“There are already signs of reforms being picked up in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia,” he said.

The abolition of kafala, he said, would mean “every person living in the country has the freedom to move from one job to another and can live their lives, change jobs whenever they want and leave the country as they want.”

Qatar says it is also planning labour market reforms, including introducing elected “workers’ welfare forums” to raise complaints with employers, and a more than 50% rise in the minimum wage.

It says it will be the first Gulf state to apply a uniform minimum wage that disregards nationality and is applicable not just to construction workers.“The rise in the minimum wage is something I am very excited about,” Thawadi said.

All Gulf states make heavy use of low-paid migrant labour, often from India. In the case of Qatar, the indigenous population now makes up only 10% of the country’s total of 2.8 million people. The Indian population of 700,000 alone dwarfs the number of locals.

A report by Amnesty International in September said thousands of migrant workers were still being exploited in Qatar despite repeated promises to improve workers’ rights.

Dismantling Qatar’s exploitative labour market – with its echoes of slavery, which was only abolished there in the 1950s – could have huge repercussions not just for Qatar’s rapidly evolving society but for Gulf economies as a whole.

Al-Thawadi claimed that some of the criticism levelled at Qatar since it won the right to stage the World Cup a decade ago had been “ill-informed, cynical or even vicious”.

This week Qatar is hosting Liverpool FC among other clubs in the Club World Cup, a tournament seen as a chance to test newly built infrastructure including a 37-station metro system, match scheduling and the overall fan experience.

World Cup organisers have repeatedly warned fans that they will have to be respectful of Qatar’s local laws and customs, including a ban on homosexuality.

Al-Thawadi, a football fan who admires Liverpool and what he called its “left wing fan base”, said meetings with community groups such as Spirit of Shankly and Kop Outs, an LGBT supporters’ club, had averted an embarrassing boycott of this week’s event. Nevertheless, he said LGBT fans would be welcome only if they refrained from “public displays of affection”.

Houtan Homayounpour, the Doha chief for ILO, a UN employment rights agency that has been working on reforms with the Qatar government since 2017, said progress was being made but there were “many more milestones to pass”.

Homayounpour cited the heat-related death toll among migrant workers, a lack of autopsies and delays in payment of wages as areas of concern.

The flow of information to the families of dead and injured workers has been mixed. For instance, the family of Zac Cox, a British worker who died when he fell from a gantry, struggled for many months to extract information on the circumstances of his death. Only after relentless pressure did Al-Thawadi’s committee set up a British judge-led inquiry.

Thawadi said he was committed to implementing the inquiry’s findings. “We don’t want Zac’s death to go without us learning or contributing to the welfare of other people,” he said.

Al-Thawadi, 41, a former law student at Sheffield University, said the labour reforms were intended not just to help Qatar survive the current glare of publicity. “None of the work we have done is to satisfy the spotlight or the critics,” he said.

“Our nation’s commitment is that these will be sustainable changes. Yes, some people have criticised the pace, but you need to build the foundations before you live in a house.” (Source: The Guardian)