The widespread exploitation of migrant labourers in Qatar threatens to undermine whatever prestige the country may have earned by winning the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In September this year, the Guardian had shone light on the deplorable treatment of contract labourers — mostly from the Indian subcontinent — engaged in World Cup-related construction projects. Since then, Amnesty International has meticulously documented serial violations of Qatar’s labour laws by private contractors. Migrant workers from Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are at the mercy of their Qatari employers, thanks to the harsh systems in place to check illegal immigration. Qatar’s “sponsorship” law designates private contractors as the custodians of their employees’ travel documents until they are issued a valid residence permit. Many migrant labourers are yet to receive their passports back. What is more, Qatari law requires the “sponsor” to issue supporting documents for an “exit visa”. Without workers’ unions to represent their case, access to justice for foreign labourers remains elusive. Amnesty’s report suggested many of them were yet to receive their salaries. While the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, the nodal agency for World Cup affairs, has acknowledged these reports, the country needs to ensure that its economic growth does not ride on the inhuman treatment of migrants.
New Delhi would do well to express its concerns to Qatari officials about the plight of Indian labourers. For the most part, India has been restrained in its diplomatic overtures on labour-related issues in West Asia; this is not surprising since remittances from migrant labourers are the main source of income for hundreds of thousands of families back home. That New Delhi and Riyadh could coordinate their actions and successfully regularise the stay of most Indian labourers in Saudi Arabia ahead of the ‘Nitaqat’ deadline, however, suggests that such issues are eminently resolvable. India should consider its migrant workforce in West Asia as an asset rather than as a vulnerable constituency. Countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia have sought to raise their profile by positioning themselves as global commercial hubs. In pursuit of this aim, they have invested considerably in infrastructure projects. Hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup figures prominently in Qatar’s efforts to boost its marketability. Needless to say, Indian labour is very much in demand for the successful completion of these projects. The reports from the Guardian and Amnesty International serve as a reminder to West Asia that it cannot take migrant labour for granted. South Asian countries must insist their citizens are granted their rights and benefits as per international obligations.