"We depend on misfortune to build up our force of migratory workers and when the supply is low because there is not enough misfortune at home, we rely on misfortune abroad to replenish the supply." -Harry S. Truman
Last week, several journalists were arrested in the small Middle East nation of Qatar while attempting to document the condition of the region's migrant worker population. These journalists, working for the BBC, were touring one of the housing camps for these workers when they were detained and questioned by Qatari security forces. Though the BBC journalists were released after several days, this isn't the first time such incidents have occurred surrounding the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The decision to hold the 2022 World Cup has already generated its share of controversies (enough that it actually has its own Wikipedia page). So why is everyone so upset about a handful of soccer games in Qatar?
First of all, these controversies range from scandals about the selection process, to the logistical nightmare of trying to hold an international outdoor sporting event in temperatures which regularly exceed 120 degrees. Though FIFA has recommended holding the cup in the winter to alleviate this, it hardly solves the other pressing issues surrounding the cup. Both alcohol and homosexuality are illegal in Qatar, though government officials have stressed that nobody will be arrested unless they refuse to "refrain from homosexual activities." However, probably the greatest controversy has surrounded the workers used to construct the massive (and expensive) facilities for this event.
To date, at least 1,500 migrant workers (predominantly from Nepal, India, and Bangladesh) have died while building the facilities for the World Cup. These deaths often occur due to heat stroke and exhaustion brought on by the extreme desert conditions of Qatar and its capital Doha. These are just a few of the estimated 23 million migrant workers who live and work in the wealthy Arabian Gulf nations of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. These individuals come from all over Africa and Southeast Asia to work and send money back to their home countries.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with migrant workers around the world, these individuals are often exploited for their labor. In addition to low wages and grueling working conditions, migrants in the Gulf are subject to what is known as the Kafala system. This is a process by which migrants are allowed into the country only under the sponsorship of their employers. Once they arrive, the employers often confiscate their passports and prohibit workers from leaving without consent (which obviously doesn't come easily). Workers are also under contract during this time, so they have almost no legal standing to change their situation. Essentially, once they arrive the country, they are the property of whichever person or company has contracted to hire them.
To make matters worse, these workers are usually housed in labor camps (which are also of very poor quality). Most are paid very meager wages (much of which goes to their families anyway), while others have gone months without being paid. This is extreme exploitation in a country which boasts the highest per capita standard of living in the world (a statistic which even includes the migrant populations!!). Even modest attempts at reform have been met with criticism or painstakingly slow progress.
Not only is this a moral problem, it has the potential to create a significant security problem as well. The populations of migrants make up a majority of the population in several of these counties. This can lead to instability if these populations mobilize and agitate for better working conditions. Demonstrations like this have already occurred on several occasions, prompting some governments to react with minimal efforts to reform the system. To date, these efforts have produced few meaningful changes to migrant worker life in Qatar.
In the meantime, FIFA has been called upon by numerous organizations and players alike to relocate the World Cup to a more suitable location (the U.S. has volunteered as one such potential location). This might help the immediate situation of these workers (though they also might just become unemployed), but it still doesn't solve the plight of the rest of the region's workers. Of course, not every migrant worker is treated horribly in these countries. But these measures are designed to keep a large socioeconomic disparity between the citizens and non-citizens of these countries, so the potential for abuse is often taken advantage of. Other nations can only put so much pressure on these countries to improve the situation of their workers, but ultimately that change has to come from within each country. Sadly, the people most able to bring about this change (the Gulf nation's citizens) have the least to gain from an overhaul of this system.