A crushing insult: the final of the Qatar World Cup on International Migrants Day

Thursday 15 December 2022 

In our latest blog, Cristina Patriarca, Safe Migration Officer, discusses the importance of protecting migrant rights in the context of combatting modern slavery. 

An illustration showing a football stadium. Above the stadium are footballers, businessmen and dignitaries with cash on the floor. Below the stadium are migrant workers.
Credit Equidem Research

Every year, on December 18, we celebrate migrants across the world as we mark the adoption of the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in 1990. On this day, we remember the importance of protecting the rights of migrant workers and their families against exploitation and abuse.  

This year, International Migrants Day coincides with the end of the World Cup in Qatar. This coincidence is a particularly powerful reminder of both how reliant the global economy is on the benefits that migration and migrant work bring, but also of the injustices that many migrant workers face when they move for work. It is one more insult that the final of this tournament would be organised to take place on a day earmarked to celebrate the contributions of migrant workers and raise awareness about the challenges of international migration. 

The benefits of welcoming migrant workers into our societies – such cultural and religious diversity and inclusion as well as larger and strengthened (and sometimes highly specialised) workforces – are often overlooked and taken for granted, meaning that the vulnerabilities of migrant workers are not always understood and mitigated.  

I worked 14 hours a day, from six am to eight pm. I did not get any overtime payment. Overtime payment was promised at 1.8%, but I never received it. I worked seven days a week. Any time they called me, I would have to go.”

An excerpt from an interview with a migrant worker in Qatar in Equidem report If we complain we are fired.” 

Exploitation of migrant workers  

In too many cases, the benefits brought by a migrant workforce come at a a high price for the workers themselves. Many migrant workers are severely exploited when they take up job opportunities abroad in search of income to support their families – some end up trapped in modern slavery.   

This severe exploitation is not small-scale, it’s taking place all around the world and across sectors that provide services, goods and experiences that enrich our life. From the food we eat, to the phones we use, the clothes we wear, and the entertainment we choose, we know there’s a high chance that migrant workers have been exploited along the way.   

Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to modern slavery, as a 2019 report by the International Organization for Migration has demonstrated. The 2022 Global Estimates on Modern Slavery also highlight that migrant workers are over three times more likely to be in situations of forced labour in the private economy compared to non-migrant workers.  

There are various reasons why migrants are particularly vulnerable to forms of modern slavery. These include marginalisation, restrictive and inadequate immigration policies – that might tie a migrant’s visa to their employer – and barriers to access to remedy 

In terms of migrant workers, access to remedy can be understood as an individual’s ability to file a complaint for harm they have experienced, related to their employment (for example, withheld wages, discrimination, being illegally charged recruitment fees), where the complaint is independently investigated and, if an abuse is found, the harm caused to the worker is redressed 

It can take place through judicial (courts) or non-judicial mechanisms, which can be State or non-State based. This includes that businesses can also develop and implement their own access to remedy mechanisms. 

Remediation goes beyond financial compensation, such as payment of wages, to include for example:  

  • Public apologies; 
  • Legal actions, such as fines, injunctions or guarantees of non-repetition; 
  • Improving processes to prevent future abuses, for example by establishing or strengthening effective company grievance mechanisms; and  
  • Empowering vulnerable groups, such as by facilitating access to mental health support. 

Remedies should involve close consultations with the affected worker(s) to identify the most effective remedy or combination of remedies to restore their dignity and redress the harm.  

All workers must have access to remedy mechanisms, without discrimination. This means that avenues to access to remedy should be made known to the workers for whom they are intended and should be designed in a way that reduces any barriers to access. 

We should also remember that the abuses and violations experienced by migrant workers can also have a trickle-down effect on their families. When migrant workers cannot send money back home, on which their spouses and children often depend to meet basic needs, their lives can become more precarious.  

As a result, they too become at greater risk of ending up in situations of modern slavery.  

Ensuring access to remedy and redress of the harm suffered by workers is therefore paramount to tackle the root causes of modern slavery.  

The Qatar World Cup

Equidem – a human rights and labour rights organisation – recently released a report: “If we complain, we are fired.” The report shares the experiences of those who have endured appalling working conditions and severe exploitation in the preparation for the World Cup and shows what daily life can look like for migrant workers. 

“If we protest, they threaten to cut our salaries or they fire us. Supervisors shout, abuse, and sometimes even beat workers. This is why no one protests. If I complain I will be abused, threatened with dismissal, and the duty will be made stricter for me.”

An excerpt from an interview with a migrant worker in Equidem report “If we complain we are fired.”

In Qatar, migrants have been forced to work under extreme heat with no rest days, have not been paid for their work nor overtime, have been facing extortionate recruitment fees to obtain a job, and have been threatened to have their visa withdrawn if they tried to change employer.  

In some instances, when workers denounced these abuses and rights violations, they then risked detention and deportation, as a minimum.  

These examples, however, are not a unique to the Qatar World Cup. Migrant workers in the agriculture sector, fishing, electronics and construction industries, to name just a few, are also systematically exploited in severe ways. This is true for countries far away as well as at home. 

Migrant workers in low-paid jobs may be in specific situations of vulnerability that make them particularly at risk of exploitation and modern slavery. These include: 

  • Strict immigration systems and visa-dependency on employers. When migrant workers enter a country where there are significant restrictions on their ability to obtain a work visa, their ability to change employer and their mobility, they can end up at risk of exploitation. In work-intensive sectors that are reliant on cheap labour – such as agriculture or construction – employers may leverage the precariousness of migrant workers’ immigration status in order to exploit them, knowing they have limited (or no) opportunities to seek help. 
  • Marginalisation. Migrant workers may experience marginalisation, as many might be excluded from social protection mechanisms that are crucial safety nets during crises. They may also lack opportunities for integration and experience social discrimination – such as caste-based discrimination. 
  • Isolation in the sectors where they are likely to work, such as the fishing industry or the agriculture sector, which makes them invisible to the rest of society as well as from authorities, as remote or at-sea locations make inspection difficult. Isolation creates a barrier for workers to seek help and denounce abuses. 
  • Low literacy levels that reduce their abilities to read and understand their contracts, as well as lack of knowledge of their rights and additionally of the labour legislation in the country of destination. 

The role of migrant workers

All around the world, we have allowed our economies to become reliant on cheap labour – with slavery being driven by a relentless drive for cheap products and services. Businesses have allowed poor working conditions and systematic human rights abuses, that have at times cost lives.  

 “Once when I was at work, I got very tired and needed to take a break. The camp boss came up to me and threatened to cut my salary for two days. He even threatened to send me back home.”

An excerpt from an interview with a migrant worker in Equidem report “If we complain we are fired.”

Migrant workers are crucial for the sustainability of this model, but this needs to change.  

The respect of human rights, including migrant’s rights, must be placed at the core of the functioning of our societies and economies. As individuals, we have the power to demand this change.  

By demanding accountability of governments and businesses for their lack of legislation and harmful practices, by keeping ourselves informed and by supporting migrants’ right to decent working conditions and freedom from modern slavery, we can help making this change happen.   

A first step you can take today is to sign our petition calling to respect the rights and dignity of migrant workers and their families who have experienced modern slavery, in different forms, to make the World Cup in Qatar possible. Let’s make sure that’s not allowed to happen again. 

Workers have rights, businesses have responsibilities and migrant workers deserve better.  

Please take action and sign today