Workers employed on construction projects in Qatar in the lead up to the 2022 World Cup may now be more at risk than ever following the government’s decision to scrap the foreign worker sponsorship system in that country, a senior policy advisor within a respected engineering non-for-profit organisation says.

In a blog entry last week, Engineers Against Poverty Senior Policy & Research Advisor Dr Jill Wells acknowledged the work of human rights organisations in exposing worker abuses in Qatar, but warned that workers may be worse off still following the dumping of the kafala (sponsorship) system unless new measures of protection are erected.

She has called instead for alternative measures to prevent abuse.

Wells said the kafala’s abolition would leave a system of uncontrolled migration in which those entering the country would have no guarantee of finding work and would be more vulnerable than if the current system – which she says at least gives workers guaranteed employment – was properly implemented.

“Human rights organisations have done a good job in exposing widespread abuse of migrant construction workers in Qatar, but they have paid less attention to proposing measures to tackle the issue beyond calling for the abolition of the kafala (sponsorship) system,” Wells wrote. “If the kafala is abolished, nobody is asking what will be put in its place.”

Her comments follow an announcement earlier this month in which the Qatari government said it would end the kafala system, abolish a long standing requirement for workers to obtain employer permission prior to leaving the country and raise the penalty on employers who confiscate foreign worker passports.

Those measures follow widespread reports of migrant worker abuse on construction projects within the country, including confiscation of passports, non-payment or under-payment of wages and being forced to work under dangerous conditions.

The kafala system was the subject of particular criticism as it meant workers who were exploited could not leave the country or seek alternative employment.

Wells, however, argued that the system should be maintained and other measures should be adopted to protect workers.

As outlined in a draft report she authored on behalf of EAP which was published last October, these include:

  • Having public sector clients of the construction industry set up worker welfare departments and undertake regular welfare audits of contractors and subcontractors
  • Requiring principal contractors to set up hotlines for workers to alert stakeholders of non-payment of wages by subcontractors
  • Paying wages through electronic bank accounts so workers would have written evidence in the event of non-payment
  • Automatically issuing ‘No Objection’ certificates when workers wish to change employment
  • Having the government beef up Labour Department resources and use its power over labour sending countries who are depending on remittances to address exploitation in the recruitment business.

These recommendations were endorsed in a report commissioned by the Qatar government, which also made further recommendations, which Wells said EPA supports.

“We call upon the Government of Qatar to accept them (the recommendations) and also to consider commissioning research into the constraints facing contractors at the bottom end of the subcontracting chain,” Wells said.