Qatar under fire over conditions for migrant workers

Reforms to workers’ rights and conditions do not go far enough, EU commissioner says

Qatar has not gone far enough in improving the working conditions for migrant workers in the country ahead of next year's Fifa World Cup, a senior EU official has warned, complaining of persistent concerns about workplace accidents.

EU commissioner for jobs and social rights Nicolas Schmit said he met Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, Qatar's labour minister, earlier this month to discuss the measures the Gulf state has been taking to reform its labour markets, and that he had warned that working conditions remained a concern for the EU.

"He said to me that they had made some progress, that they had adopted ILO [International Labour Organization] conventions," said Mr Schmit. "I acknowledged that, and I said that I was still worried by the accidents which continue to occur – that health and safety and fair treatment for workers are for the European Union essential."

Qatar has been criticised by Amnesty International and other campaign organisations over the working conditions of the mainly south Asian construction workers in the gas-rich state. Their criticisms focus on conditions at construction sites including the Khalifa stadium in Doha, and on Qatar's response, including how the authorities investigate deaths.


Qatar has a migrant workforce of about 2.1 million, over 90 per cent of the country’s working population. An ILO report on Qatar last month found there had been 50 fatal occupational injuries in 2020 and 506 severe injuries.

The ILO called for improvements in the country’s statistics on occupational health and also a review of the way deaths of seemingly healthy young workers from “natural causes” were investigated.

In a separate interview in Brussels, Mr Al Marri defended his government's record, describing some media reports on death rates in the emirate as amounting to the "demonisation" of Qatar.

He cited a number of recent reforms introduced by Qatar, including the abolition of its system of “kafala”, in which employers acted as “sponsor” and had the power to deport workers and give permission for an expatriate to leave the country.

They had also removed the requirement for most workers to obtain exit permits, tightened rules on working hours to reduce the risk of heat stress and introduced a minimum wage, he said, insisting there had been a significant decrease in work-related accidents in the country.

“This development in the field of workers’ rights will not stop with the World Cup – it will go beyond the World Cup,” he added.

Confiscation of passports

Amnesty International in a report last month acknowledged the kafala reforms as “an important step forward”, but said in reality “problematic elements remain”, including employers controlling workers’ legal status and other retaliatory measures used by abusive employers.

And while embassies and advocates agreed it is easier for workers to leave the country since exit permits were removed two years ago, they said some migrant workers, especially domestic staff, continued to face hurdles, such as employers filing spurious legal claims and the confiscation of passports, the report said.

"Some of the reforms have undoubtedly been positive, but the significant structural changes just started too late – 10 years after winning the World Cup – so it is unsurprising that implementation has, at best, been not good. It is still a nightmare for workers to leave their jobs, so the extent to which these changes have yet changed their lives for the better is extremely contested," said James Lynch, a founding director of FairSquare, a human rights group.

“There is also a lack of political will, with the business community in Qatar pushing back against labour mobility - so the big question is what will this issue look like once the spotlight of the World Cup fades away.”

Mr Schmit acknowledged some progress, including the abolition of the previous system of “total control of immigrant workers”. But he warned: “There is a problem of accidents and health and safety for these workers and working conditions.”

The commissioner also said the level of the minimum wage introduced by the country, at QR1,000 (€243) a month, plus additional support for accommodation and food, seemed to him to be “very low”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021