The award of the 2022 FIFA World Cup has put Qatar in the international spotlight. Greater international exposure has created pressure to abide by international norms and best practices. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of labour regulations. Several trade unions, including the Building and Wood Workers International, have been in talks with FIFA to ensure that contractors involved in preparations for the event in 2022 adhere to international labour laws.

COMMITMENT: The organisers have refused to shy away from the issue of labour conditions. In January 2012 the secretary-general of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, Hassan Al Thawadi, told a Doha press conference, “Major sporting events shed a spotlight on conditions in countries. There are labour issues here, but Qatar is committed to reform. We will require contractors to impose a clause to ensure international labour standards are met. Sport, particularly football, is a very powerful force. We can use it to benefit the region.”

Qatar already has reasonably stringent regulations for labour, but implementation and monitoring has often been a problem. According to a May 2011 report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) on labour conditions in Qatar and the UAE, “Even when laws are changed to benefit the workers, there are often shortfalls in their implementation, and migrants are frequently unaware of their rights.”

MIXED OPINIONS: The government is attempting to address this perception and improve worker conditions, but contractors are divided over the impact the World Cup and the government’s vocal commitment to labour rights will actually have on the ground. Ammar Ammar, the business development manager at Al Jaber & Partners, said, “I don’t see labour or sponsorship reform happening until 2018, and by then the bulk of the work for the World Cup will have been finished.”

Others believe that government pressure and the exposure that the bid win has brought have already had an impact. According to Atul Bharadwaj, the senior project manager at Al Balagh Trading and Contracting, “Labour regulation is becoming strict. We know there will be new visa rules in terms of sponsorship and if you go to the industrial area, we have good quality labour accommodation now.” One high-profile development in this regard was the 2009 announcement of Barwa Al Baraha, a new “workers’ city” that will be able to house 53,000 workers on the outskirts of Doha. The project, being developed by Barwa Real Estate, will contain cinemas, mosques, a sports field and landscaped gardens. This development will surpass the existing housing guidelines, which stipulate that workers should have four sq metres of space each, that there should be a toilet for every eight workers and that buildings with more than 100 workers should have a nurse. However, the ITUC says the rules are often ignored.

KAFALA: The most contentious issue that the government is seeking to address is the sponsorship, or kafala, system, which mandates that foreign workers must have a sponsor to be employed within Qatar. In a January 2011 regional report, the International Labour Organisation wrote that the system “causes distortions to the market and can lead to forced labour and trafficking”. As early as 2009 the government tried to address some of the most widely abused elements of the system, introducing regulations that allowed the government to temporarily authorise foreign labourers to work in another job if they were in dispute with their sponsor, and prohibited sponsors from holding onto the passports of foreign workers beyond the completion of residency registration.

The government continues to try to address these issues. In 2010 the National Human Rights Committee set up a labour rights unit to address workers’ complaints and inform them of their rights. In November 2010 Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani said the country might consider abolishing the kafala system. Similar possible changes are likely to be welcomed by Qatar’s 505,000 foreign construction workers, and signal another step forward in the country’s continued efforts to help improve the environment for labourers.