Inside the “kafala” migrant labor system
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The 2022 World Cup is getting underway soon in Qatar. For our Econ Extra Credit series this month, we decided to watch “The Workers Cup,” which documents the lives of some of the migrant workers that built the infrastructure for the games.
The “kafala” system, translating literally to “sponsorship,” is used by Qatar and other Persian Gulf countries to employ migrant workers. While the system has been in place for decades, the influx of workers to Qatar has brought renewed attention to its faults, including scant protections for workers’ rights. Recently Qatar passed reforms to the system, but many experts like Natasha Iskander, a professor at NYU and author of the book, “Does Skill Make Us Human?: Migrant Workers in 21st-Century Qatar and Beyond,” say the problems are systemic.
“The industrial practices, the system of labor relations in the construction industry still reflects the old kafala system,” Iskander said in an interview with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio. “Workers face retaliation – if they try to change jobs, they can’t easily leave the country, they are subjected to chronic non-payment of wages and wage theft. And if they try to file a complaint or protest against these conditions, this often results in detention or deportation.”
The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: I will tell you given all the work that you’ve done, was it a busman’s holiday to ask you to watch this documentary film?
Natasha Iskander: No. In fact, I really enjoyed “The Workers Cup.” One of the things that I really appreciate about that movie is the full range of humanity that it illustrates of the workers, their aspirations, their solidarity, their desire to play, their sportsmanship, this full range of personhood of the workers that it displays. It’s really beautiful to see.
Fancy buildings, poor working conditions
Brancaccio: But also it underscores a sharp contrast, right? That infrastructure that they’re building that you’ll see on television is fancy schmancy. Yet, those are not the conditions that workers find themselves where they stay, where they eat, where they sleep.
Iskander: Yes, in fact, the contrast is quite sharp. I mean, one thing to note right from the bat is that GCC, the company filmed for this documentary, is one of the companies that has a reputation for good working conditions and good living conditions. So that company is representative of some practices, but not representative of the industry as a whole, the construction industry as a whole. One of the really sharp contrasts that you note, David is the contrast between this cutting-edge, technologically-advanced construction, and the conditions under which workers work and live. The workers who are building this World Cup, have built structures that contain some of the most complex, difficult, technically-advanced and innovative construction technologies anywhere in the world. Qatar is absolutely on the cutting edge of construction globally. And when you watch the gorgeous stadia and the absolutely stunning structures that will appear on your screen, and that appeared on the screen of the movie, as well, you can see the sophistication of that construction. Those structures exist because of the technical competence, the bravery, the dedication, the incredible hard work of the workers who built the cup. And yet those same workers did that under very difficult conditions. Qatar just recently passed a minimum wage law that gave workers $275 a month, but for most of the decade leading up to the World Cup, the average wage was closer to $200. They did it working long hours, sometimes with forced overtime, often not receiving the wages they were promised – wage theft is pretty endemic in the industry – under very difficult conditions. So really accelerated cadences of work. And in extreme temperatures. The labor camps that workers lived in also were often subpar. In the film, you saw living accommodations where workers were housed two to a room. Many of the living accommodations I observed housed closer to 12 workers in a small rooms, and cramped bunks with very poor infrastructure in an area outside of the main city called the industrial area that was actually not zoned for housing. It was zoned for equipment and industrial use. And it really shows you how workers were treated as labor inputs.
Brancaccio: And what we need to understand is that this is not just an overall system set up just to build stuff for these World Cup games. There’s this “kafala” system that’s used in many countries in the Middle East that brings in migrant labor, and that uses middlemen to run the system. And that implies certain things for the workers themselves.
“The system has been reformed on paper…”
Iskander: That’s right. I mean the kafala system literally it just translates into “sponsorship” system. And it is a thicket of laws that encapsulates the temporary labor framework in Qatar. It’s not dissimilar in its bones from temporary guestworker frameworks anywhere in the world, including in the U.S. Our H1, H2 visas look very similar. What was distinctive about the kafala system in Qatar is that for most of the decade of the World Cup construction, the kafala system was tantamount to a system of formal labor bondage. So workers could not change jobs. They could not quit their jobs. They could not withhold labor for any reason. So non-payment of wages forced overtime, conditions of abuse or dangerous working conditions, none of these are justifications to withhold labor. And workers were not able to leave the country without their employer’s permission. They required an exit visa to leave. So you can see how the structure was a formal system of bonded labor. In 2017, in partnership with the ILO, the International Labor Organization, Qatar started reforming this system in a kind of progressive and piecemeal way so that now, it looks much better on paper. So now, workers do actually have the right to change jobs, they can leave the country at will, they can quit their jobs if they like. But what the reforms look like on paper is not what they look like in practice. The industrial practices, the system of labor relations in the construction industry still reflects the old kafala system. Workers face retaliation if they try to change jobs, they can’t easily leave the country, they are subject to chronic non-payment of wages and wage theft. And if they try to file a complaint or protest against these conditions, this often results in detention or deportation. So really, the system has been reformed on paper, but in practice, it is still quite confining and abets exploitative conditions on-site.
Brancaccio: I wonder if it’s the ironies, but it’s a tension in our discussion that we should address, which is that not traveling to Qatar to do this work might have meant less pay for some of the workers that you see from Nepal, from Ghana, from Kenya, that it may have been a rational economic act to want to move to work on these projects.
Iskander: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it was a decision that people in their home communities made because it absolutely made economic sense. What is important to note, though, David, is that prior to a reform that was instituted just recently, wages were indexed to the prevailing wage in the home country. So the lower the wages were in the home country in Nepal, or Kenya, or Ethiopia, or Bangladesh, the lower the wages received in Qatar. So you could actually have workers working side-by-side, on the same team, doing the exact same work, and being paid very different wages, depending on the level of poverty in their home country. An Indian worker, for example, on a worksite could be scaffolding right next to a Nepali and could be earning 1/3 more because prevailing wages in Nepal were lower. The other thing to notice that, even though it did make economic sense for workers to migrate to Qatar, the wages were not substantially higher than in their home country. And in fact, some companies I spoke with report challenges recruiting workers because the wages were not high enough to be attractive to the large numbers of workers that they needed to construct the cup.
Two separate labor systems
Brancaccio: So in a country like Qatar, the workforce is substantially immigrant workers, yet the ministry of labor that would apply to those who are not migrants, that’s a different system of regulation from the system of laws that would govern the migrants?
Iskander: Yes, yes, most definitely. The small percentage of the labor force, 5%, that is Qatari is covered by a different set of regulations than those that govern migrant workers. Those Qatari workers are afforded different rights and different protections. Most definitely, yes.
Brancaccio: And less oversight in the system that applies to the people from other countries, or just a different kind of oversight?
Iskander: It’s not that it’s a different kind of oversight. It’s that Qatari workers tend to work in a subset of industries primarily in the public sector, primarily for government. So for example, the construction industry was almost 100% foreign. Out of close to a million employees in the construction industry, some 1,500 were Qatari. So it was a completely foreign industry. I mean, what you have is an industry building the World Cup that is global, it is absolutely an international endeavor. Everyone from you know, the helper worker on-site all the way through the managing engineer is an immigrant worker in Qatar.
Brancaccio: It’s so intense, this movie. There’s a moment, right, where a worker is seen to hurt themselves, perhaps on a gambit to be able to be let out of the country and go home. Yet, you remember, the moment where a worker says that he’s proud of the work he’s doing?
Iskander: Yeah, for me, that was such a moving moment. It’s hard to overstate the technical difficulty of the structures. And I am willing to bet that every single worker who worked on building the infrastructure and the stadia for these games will be watching the World Cup with their hearts bursting with pride at what they built, bursting with pride at the kind of gorgeous World Cup that they built for all of us.
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