It’s perfectly normal to have a few hundred migrant workers drop dead every year

I’ve written briefly about Qatar’s kind of horrific system of indentured servitude before, but they’ve been under increased scrutiny for their labor practices of late. Qatar imports almost all of its labor force, and that’s understandable; with only about 300,000 or so Qatari citizens they are kind of forced to bring labor in from the outside in order to make full use of their tremendous resource wealth. But the system for importing those workers, called kafalah, is fundamentally exploitative. Foreigners who come to Qatar (and, it must be said, to other Gulf nations as well), most of them as either manual or domestic laborers, must have a citizen sponsor (a kafil; the foreign workers are the “sponsored,” or makful) to ensure that they are legally allowed to be there and that their paperwork is all in order.

In practice the kafil is allowed to treat his makful in ways that really do approach indentured servitude, though foreigners in higher-status jobs from America and Europe are treated quite well while the unskilled laborers brought in from South and East Asia are the ones who are abused. Employers can take a foreign worker’s passport away, preventing them from leaving the country without  permission, and can force them to work extended hours in incredibly unsafe conditions (imagine working a paving crew in the summer in a country where the August highs can approach 46 C/115 F), for minimal pay while living in wretched circumstances. The workers have little recourse or legal standing to challenge any mistreatment, and the best they can hope for is usually to get their passport back and to be allowed to leave, which isn’t much of an enticement considering that their prospects back home were poor enough that they agreed to go to Qatar in the first place. The General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, calls Qatar “a slave state,” which may be overstating but not by nearly enough.

In 2010 FIFA, displaying the strong awareness of and firm commitment to human rights issues that characterizes all high-level international sports organizations, awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Given that Qatar mistreats its manual laborers under normal conditions, human rights observers were justifiably concerned at the potential for additional abuses as the country races to not only build the venues it needs for the tournament, but also tries to build up its capital and one real city, Doha, to accommodate the crowds and expectations that the tournament brings with it (they are, for example, trying to build a subway system). FIFA promised to “monitor” the migrant worker situation, which probably means nothing but makes FIFA sound like they’re doing something, and they’ve promised to start paying attention to little niggling details like “an all-encompassing system that abuses and exploits workers” the next time they award the World Cup somewhere, which is nice. They insist that the World Cup will actually help improve the situation for workers in Qatar, since the Qataris can’t get away with exploiting them while the world is paying attention.

Yeah, well, not so much. AFP reported figures from the Indian Embassy in Doha that say that 478 migrant Indian workers have died in Qatar over the past two years, out of an Indian migrant population of around 500,000, which Qatari officials naturally want to claim is “normal.” Now, I’m no demographer or actuary, but a death rate of almost 100 per 100,000 among able-bodied young men is not “normal”; based on about 10 minutes of Googling, it seems that comparable figures in the US for 20-something men are around 25-30 deaths per 100,000. The ITUC calls the Qatari figure “exceptionally high,” and Human Rights Watch warns that it could signal “an unfolding tragedy.” More alarmingly, The Guardian reports that around 400 Nepalese workers have died on building sites since FIFA announced the 2022 award in December 2010, and that’s out of a total population of only about 70,000 Nepalese in the country. This seems less like “an unfolding tragedy” than an ongoing grotesquerie, and while FIFA is “monitoring” Qatar’s migrant worker situation, it doesn’t seem prepared to actually do anything about it.

2 thoughts on “It’s perfectly normal to have a few hundred migrant workers drop dead every year

  1. The human rights situation of guest workers in Gulf states seems inherently contradictory, surely if their pay and conditions were improved they could fully partake in their host economies as consumers. This would further strengthen the host nations economy. It’s the same process that western industrialised economies went through in the 19thC, and China faces today – the fundamental need to develop a consumption based industrial working class rather than depend on indentured labour.

    1. That’s an excellent point, and it’s interesting how racism is one of the major obstacles to making this change, as it was (and still is, to some degree) in the West.

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