On 27 March, Doha hosted the Qatar Mega Marathon. Organisers had hoped to tempt more than 50,000 runners to participate and break the world record for the most competitors in what was actually a half-marathon.

But rather than doing this through a comprehensive public relations and marketing campaign, tempting prizes or affiliation with an international sporting body, the organisers elected to conscript thousands of Qatar’s migrant labourers to run the 21.1-kilometre course alongside the country’s fitness fanatics.

Despite organisers’ claims of 33,000 entrants, those who were there said the numbers were much lower. Feedback on the race’s organisation was not favourable, and runners were aghast at workers running in long trousers and sandals in the heat of the day.

Marathon fiasco

“The worst part of all was that there was a large mass of laborers wearing jeans, flip flops and no proper running equipment,” one runner told the local Doha News. “Some labourers tried to leave, but were turned back and were yelled at that they need to stay and cross the line.”

International media were quick to pick up on the fiasco, and even regional parody news portal The Pan-Arabia Enquirer carried the headline: “Middle East satire site concedes defeat after labourers forced to run Qatari marathon in flip-flops”.

The situation may have seemed laughable to casual observers, but it is another blow against Doha’s already besmirched reputation for mistreatment of the 1.4 million workers, primarily from the Indian subcontinent, who are building the country’s infrastructure as it gears up to host the football World Cup in 2022.

At MEED’s Qatar Projects conference, held in Doha in March, a straw poll of attendees found about a third of the audience saw labour as the biggest problem in the country’s construction sector. But these concerns centre more on availability of manpower than on living and working conditions. A question-and-answer session quickly shifted tack when, rather than addressing allegations of indentured labour, crowded camp accommodation and an alarmingly high mortality rate, talk turned to the contribution of workers’ buses to the logjam traffic conditions that plague the capital.

Government bodies, however, are taking steps towards improving the lives of those who come to work in the peninsular state in order to support their families back home.

In July 2014, the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science & Community Development released a survey about the conditions of labourers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. The report was conducted following criticism from organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UK news organisation The Guardian. It found that, among other abuses, workers are systematically charged exploitative fees by recruitment agents; that their contracts are changed or manipulated to their disadvantage; and they are prevented from leaving their jobs or changing employers.

Serious campaign

The report’s authors called for “a serious and systematic campaign” to emphasise to all stakeholders that workers “must arrive debt-free and without having paid recruitment fees, costs and charges before departure or after arrival from their salaries.”

In May, Qatar announced a series of reforms, but Amnesty International says these are not enough. “Despite making repeated promises to clean up its act ahead of the World Cup, the government of Qatar still appears to be dragging its feet over some of the most fundamental changes needed, such as abolishing the exit permit and overhauling its abusive sponsorship system,” said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, the international human rights group’s head of refugee and migrants’ rights, in a November report.

Of the May reforms, Elsayed-Ali said: “So far, [Qatar’s] response to migrant labour issues has not been much more than promises of action and draft laws.”

Foreign workers in Qatar, 2013
Citizenship Workers %
India 452,578 31.2
Nepal 339,901 23.5
Philippines 165,447 11.4
Bangladesh 130,630 9
Arab countries 146,577 10.1
Egypt 72,487 5
Syria 18,474 1.3
Sudan 14,147 1
Lebanon 10,222 0.7
Jordan 8,341 0.6
Palestine 4,312 0.3
Total 1,449,234
Source: Gulf Research Centre

Amnesty International once again called on Qatar to take “concrete, initial steps”, including: abolishing exit permits; launching an independent investigation into the causes of workers’ deaths; dropping legal fees for workers raising cases against their employers; and publishing the names of exploitative recruiters and employers.”

At MEED’s conference, Daruna, a Qatari company building accommodation for workers in construction and other sectors, signed a memorandum of understanding for the first in what is planned to be a series of model communities for migrant workers.

The 6,000-bed camp in the Al-Wakra area will be like a small town, and will include a range of facilities including retail outlets, leisure facilities and a police station. “Everything is going to be available… to live a good life,” said Sheikh Nasser bin Abdulrahman bin Nasser al-Thani, the firm’s chairman, speaking at the conference.

Describing the planned camps as the “next standard” for the region and the world, he said: “We are going to monitor the quality [of conditions in camps]. We are going to guarantee the quality as we are the owners… and we are going to monitor our partners.”

A representative of Amnesty International, speaking on the sidelines of the conference, welcomed the announcement. “Basic, minimum conditions can change and improve, and we welcome senior Qataris discussing the issues,” the official told MEED. “Workers employed directly are in OK conditions, but the workforce supply chain is a huge problem. Supply companies often have the worst standards of accommodation and wage payment, and can pressure workers not to complain due to the exit permit system [which means no employee can leave the country without his company’s permission].”

The topic of supply was addressed at the conference too. Tristan Foster, founder and CEO of UK ethical recruitment company FSI, said his firm is working to set up infrastructure for labour recruitment in source countries, in order to try and stamp out the exorbitant recruitment fees workers are asked to pay to the recruitment agents that find them jobs in the Gulf.

By having a presence on the ground abroad, FSI hopes to control both ends of the recruitment process, thereby ensuring the workers it supplies are not among those who arrive in Qatar with up to $5,000 of debt to pay off from wages that can be as low as $200 a month.

Other steps towards meaningful reform include codes of conduct adopted by Qatar Foundation and the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the body running the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Qatar Foundation published its Mandatory Standards for Migrant Worker Welfare for Contractors and Subcontractors in April 2013, and in February 2014, the Supreme Committee adopted its Workers’ Charter.

Enforcing reforms

These moves have been welcomed, but they can be hard to police, meaning contractors are easily able to flout the codes after adhering to guidelines during initial inspections. Rameshwar Nepal, director of Amnesty International’s Nepal section, asked a panel including both Foster and Sheikh Nasser what steps are being taken to reinvestigate employers after they have proved conditions for labourers meet standards.

While Foster said “a little” inspection by clients of their supply chains goes on, he added that “we would like to see more”. He also admitted that meaningful auditing of labour conditions “sounds difficult, and it is difficult”.

The Qatari government has a role to play, Foster added. He would like to see Doha putting more pressure on the companies in South Asian countries that recruit workers, traditionally putting them into a form of “debt bondage” as they struggle to pay off upfront fees. This pressure could take the form of Qatar-based accreditation of recruitment companies in source countries.

To really improve the lives of migrant workers, Doha needs to bring in more reforms and enforce them more strictly. It needs to close the loopholes that let foreign recruiters and local contractors exploit low-paid, poorly educated and unskilled labourers. Only then will the world take seriously its claims of respecting human rights. But, like the men forced to run in the marathon, there is a long way to go to the finishing line and it will be painful getting there.

Key fact

In 2010, more than half of Qatar’s total population lived in labour camps

Source: Gulf Research Centre

Qatar: A growing migrant population

In 2010, at the last national census, the number of non-Qataris living in Qatar was estimated at 1.46 million, 85.7 per cent of the total population of 1.7 million. Between 2004 and 2010, the Qatari population grew at 3.9 per cent a year, while the number of non-Qataris increased by 14.6 per cent. This rate peaked at 17.3 per cent in 2008 and, according to 2014 research from the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre, it has picked up again.

“If accurate, the newest data for 2013 may confirm the start of a massive rise in workers’ recruitment, forecast since the awarding of the football World Cup bid to Qatar,” said Franciose de Bel-Air from the centre, in a 2014 report.

In 2013, 1.45 million out of a labour force of 1.54 million were non-nationals. Qataris are the minority at all levels of the labour force: 80 per cent of all managers are expatriates, and 99 per cent of those in unskilled positions. Most are in the lowest occupation categories, and the Gulf Research Centre reports that jobs from “craft and related trade workers” to “elementary occupations” account for 72 per cent of non-national employment.

Among Qataris, 81 per cent are in “white collar” positions. Locals mostly work in a large public sector, which employs 80.6 per cent of working Qataris. The private sector provides jobs for 78.4 per cent of employed non-nationals. Expatriates make up 99 per cent of the private sector’s manpower and 60.8 per cent of the public sector’s.

In 2010, according to the Gulf Research Centre, 918,150 people lived in labour camps. That was more than half of Qatar’s total population and 70 per cent of all men in the country.