When many people think about the term “slavery,” they may reflect on it as a historical institution of the imperial powers of the West. They may even erroneously deem slavery as a decrepit artifact of the past. However, although many history textbooks tend to portray slavery as strictly a practice of the colonial and imperial past, this horrendous institution remains extant throughout many parts of the modern world, Qatar being one of them.
The very same countries that are thought of as exotic vacation hot-spots may also be teeming with covert slave trades. After all, since only a handful of nations are as developed and as advanced as the Western world, some of these less-developed nations rely on slave networks to buttress their nascent economies. For instance, the blistering topic of an emerging controversy unveiled by an investigation by The Guardian, slavery in Qatar has captured media attention because Qatar has purportedly used slave labor in its endeavors to prepare for World Cup 2022.
One may find it ironic that intense mistreatment can exist in a country whose population is composed primarily of migrant workers, however, it is an undeniable reality for many laborers in Qatar. Among Qatar’s two million residents, a paltry 225,000 are natural citizens with the rest of the populace primarily comprised of South Asian migrant workers. These workers hail from less-developed nations such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Qatari officials view the World Cup 2022 as a ceremony in which not only the classic sport of soccer is honored, but also in which cultural relations can be repaired. To prepare for the ceremony, Qatar is investing a reported $100 billion on infrastructure in addition to another $20 billion toward renovating roads and constructing new roads and stadiums. However, behind the glimmering windows and cascading high-rises lurks the masked scandal of slave labor.
According to the International Trade Union Confederation, approximately 4,000 South Asian workers will perish before the festivities of the World Cup 2022 even begin. Furthermore, an investigation by The Guardian unearthed shocking maltreatment of Nepalese laborers who have to endure conditions such as lack of water, food, payment and legal identification. With such horrific conditions, one may wonder how these laborers would ever agree to work for such exploitative employers. However, these unsuspecting migrant workers, eager to earn money and support their starving families, are often tricked into signing false contracts. For instance, workers are given one contract before arriving to Qatar, but upon arrival, they are given a second, demeaning contract. When news broke of the slave-like treatment of migrant workers, there was subsequent backlash.
In order to mitigate subsequent backlash, Qatar officials stated that they would replace the present kafala system with a more democratic system. The kafala system is a sponsorship system in which workers are bound to an all-powerful and oftentimes boundless employer. In a statement issued by the human rights director of the Qatari interior ministry, Colonel Abdullah Saqr al-Mohannadi, the Colonel professes that “We are going to abolish the kafala system and it will move to the legislative institutions… It will be replaced by a contractual relationship between employer and employee.”
Colonel Abdullah Saqr al-Mohannadi also proposes to modify this system by facilitating workers’ ability to obtain exit visas in order to leave their sponsor in the event of mistreatment or simply just a desire to seek other employment. A substantial portion of these reforms are based on advice from DLA Piper, a London law firm that had been mandated with the task of reviewing the implementation of revised labor laws in Qatar. For instance, DLA Piper proposed that a sponsor would be required to show substantial and viable proof supporting his or her objection to permitting a worker to terminate their labor services. Other reform proposals include implementing sanctions against inadequate employers and engendering a more closely-working relationship between the workers’ home countries and their host country.
Although the proposals by DLA may point to an easy resolution, the chances of Qatar following through on these orders is a topic of question and doubt. One major concern from Amnesty International is that although Qatar proposes modifications to the kafala system, all reforms must ultimately be verified and approved by the shura, or advisory council, that legislates many Emirate nations. According to Amnesty International, the shura is expected to strongly oppose the aforementioned proposed changes to the long-standing kafala system due to feared economic consequences.
For instance, Nicholas McGeehan, an activist from Human Rights Watch, voiced his concern by blatantly stating, “The notion that the kafala system can be abolished by no longer referring to a sponsor but an employer-employee relationship is utterly preposterous.” McGeehan’s statement captures the concern that many proponents of reform in Qatar face.
Is the government going to implement adequate change or attempt to shroud the issue with a simple name change?
– Phoebe Pradhan