Lusail Iconic Stadium, where the World Cup final game will be played on Dec. 18. David Ramos/Getty Images
"The Workers Cup"

The politics of “unskilled” labor

The Econ Extra Credit Team Nov 22, 2022
Heard on:
Lusail Iconic Stadium, where the World Cup final game will be played on Dec. 18. David Ramos/Getty Images

The 2022 World Cup men’s tournament has begun. On screen, soccer fans will see not only their favorite players, but brand-new, cutting-edge, sophisticated stadiums, all built almost entirely by migrant workers over the last 12 years.

“It’s hard to overstate the technical difficulty of the structures,” said Natasha Iskander, a professor at New York University and author of “Does Skill Make Us Human?: Migrant Workers in 21st-Century Qatar and Beyond.”

“Those structures exist because of the technical competence, the bravery, the dedication, the incredible hard work of the workers who built the [World Cup],” Iskander told David Brancaccio on “Marketplace Morning Report.”

“And yet those same workers did that under very difficult conditions.”

As the title of her book suggests, Iskander attributes the abuses, which include wage theft, forced overtime, the inability to change jobs and dangerous working conditions, to the politics of “unskilled” labor. It’s a term used to describe workers who are hired with little or no professional experience. Regardless of the skills they attain on the job, the workers never transform in the eyes of managers, employers or the greater Qatari citizenry, Iskander said. 

“Outside of Qatar, [migrant workers] are thought of as victims; inside Qatar, they are thought of as a resource,” said Ramzy Haddad, one of the producers of “The Workers Cup.” He and the film’s director, Adam Sobel, hope that the film helps both citizens of Qatar and those watching outside of the Middle East to see the full humanity of the workers.

“Being defined as workers is like being defined as a machine,” said Sobel. Despite recent reforms, he said, “the workers have no purpose in [Qatari] society beyond the work that they provide.

“It’s still very difficult to take time off … and they are still part of gross segregation,” Sobel added, referring to the fact that most migrants live in camps 45 minutes or more outside of residential areas zoned for Qatari citizens. They’re also not allowed to visit many parts of Qatari cities. 

When Samuel Alabi Agoe, one of the workers featured in the documentary, got a job in Qatar, he was looking forward to the chance to travel and the opportunity to play soccer. But he didn’t realize how separated he and other migrant workers would be from the rest of Qatari society. When friends consider taking work contracts abroad, he advises them against going to Qatar.

“I tell them, ‘If you are going to Qatar to work, you will work like an elephant and live like an ant,’” he said. 

Alabi Agoe worked a total of three years in Qatar but had to return to his family’s home in Nungua, a small town near Accra, after injuring himself and developing chronic pain. He now has part-time work and helps to train and coach aspiring goalkeepers in Ghana. Despite work being hard to find in Ghana, he has no plans to return to Qatar. 

“I entered that country with love. But I left with pain,” Alabi Agoe said. 

His biggest complaints? Long work hours, the extreme heat and the amount of effort required simply to get paid. To collect the soccer prize money that he was awarded for his goalkeeping performance in the Workers Cup tournament, he had to repeatedly follow up for almost nine months before he got what was due. (In “The Workers Cup,” we see him holding a large check for 1,000 Qatari riyals, about $266 U.S. dollars, at the end of the film.)
Lots of migrant workers have misconceptions on what life will be like in Qatar, one of the wealthiest countries per capita in the world. Recruiters also often tell workers what they want to hear, promising higher salaries, for example, to get them to sign a contract. It’s only when the workers get to Qatar that reality sets in.

On paper, it might seem to make economic sense: Workers come to Qatar or other Middle Eastern countries that rely on temporary workers because they can’t find work in their home countries. But despite Qatar’s wealth, these workers don’t often earn larger sums of money. 

“Wages for migrant workers were often indexed to the prevailing wage in the home country,” said Iskander. “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.” 

Many workers are still forced to pay high recruitment fees that cost as much as a year’s salary, despite these fees being illegal, The Guardian reports. 

Reforms in Qatar that went into effect in 2021 included a universal minimum wage of $275 a month, minimum standards for food and accommodation, prohibitions on outdoor work between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. during the hottest months of the year, and the ability for workers to change jobs without employer permission. But these new rules and the bans on predatory recruitment fees have been tough to enforce. According to an October report from the United Nations International Labour Organization, many workers who sought to change jobs in 2021 and 2022 still faced retaliation.

Even after the World Cup ends, “I hope the scrutiny continues,” said producer Haddad. And while there is a long list of changes to be made, migrant workers tell him the one thing that would improve their lives the most is just getting paid on time.

Bonus Video: What “Severance” can teach us about work-life balance

In July, Econ Extra Credit delved into the work-life balance lessons we learned from the Apple TV+ series “Severance.” Here’s a video in which David touches on the show’s top takeaways. 

How to watch “The Workers Cup”

“The Workers Cup” is available to watch for free on Tubi, and is also on Kanopy for free for some library card holders. It’s available to rent for a fee on Prime Video and Vudu.

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