Qatar, Migrants Laborers, and the ILO

Ian Marshall Sander
Vol. 40 Articles Editor


In 2010, FIFA awarded hosting duties for the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.[1] Beyond accusations of corruption[2] and the questionable wisdom of Qatar hosting an event traditionally hosted in the summer,[3] a prominent issue regarding Qatar and the World Cup concerned labor, specifically the plight of construction laborers in the Gulf state. Most of these laborers are migrant workers; indeed, migrant laborers compose the vast majority—approximately 95%—of Qatar’s labor force[4], with Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and the Philippines providing most of the foreign workers.[5]

Critics immediately raised concern over the fact that Qatar’s labor system failed to provide construction laborers working on World Cup projects with adequate rights and protections.[6] In fact, Qatari labor practices violated international labor standards.[7] As construction for the World Cup in Qatar began, reports out of Qatar confirmed that concern: laborers were suffering—and dying.[8] Today, over seven years after Qatar earned the hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup, the labor situation remains unacceptable. But recent action by the International Labour Organization (ILO) provides reason to be optimistic about positive change.

Qatar’s Violations of the Prohibition of Forced Labor:

Heightened scrutiny stemming from the World Cup highlighted Qatar’s failure to eradicate forced labor practices from its labor system in violation of its international legal obligations. Qatar ratified the two ILO conventions outlawing forced labor: the Forced Labour Convention (No. 29) in 1998 and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No. 105) in 2007.[9] These are two of the eight core conventions of the ILO.[10]

At the heart of Qatar’s non-compliant practices was the Kafala system.[11] The Kafala system operated as a sponsorship system, wherein foreign workers were legally bound to an employer (or sponsor) for as long as they were present in the host state.[12] The worker could not leave the country or leave their employment without their employer’s permission; often, the employer would confiscate worker passports and travel documents; employers had no requirement to render wages on any regular schedule and could withhold portions of wages for charges they applied after the migrant worker agreed to employment.[13] These details are illustrative and not exhaustive, but they do help demonstrate why many considered the Kafala system to constitute forced labor.[14]

The International Labour Organization:

Amid pressure from the international community, Qatar ostensibly pledged reform and initiated some reform efforts.[15] Various human rights organizations and other entities dismissed these efforts as insufficient and pointed to a threat of rising death tolls if meaningful change did not occur. The ILO—a UN agency with considerable autonomy—involved itself in the issue following a complaint submitted in 2014 to the ILO Governing Body. The complaint alleged Qatar’s failure to protect the rights of migrant workers in violation of its international law obligations forbidding forced labor.[16]

Following the 2014 complaint, a March 2016 ILO delegation to Qatar confirmed what the world already knew: workers were stranded without passports and pay, had no real labor protections, and no viable opportunities to escape their below minimum standards employment.[17] In other words, forced labor was alive and well in Qatar; not only that, forced labor was building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. The ILO gave Qatar one year to enact reforms or potentially face a formal commission of inquiry by the ILO, [18] a rarely used but among the ILO’s most powerful tools to enforce compliance with its treaties.[19] While the degree of enforcement power that a commission of inquiry holds does beg some debate,[20] the threat of an ILO commission of inquiry does seem to have prompted Qatari reform.

On November 8, 2017, the ILO Governing Body announced it would close the complaint against Qatar, declining to launch an official commission of inquiry.[21] The ILO justified its response by pointing to the Qatar government’s expressed reform commitments and actual legislative actions.[22] Indeed, Qatar initiated reforms to replace the Kafala system in December 2016;[23] in late October 2017, Qatar re-affirmed its decision to end the Kafala system and announced additional labor reforms (e.g. introduction of a minimum wage) that sought to end forced labor in practice.[24] These October 2017 reforms followed criticisms of the earlier reforms as insufficient and came right before the ILO Governing Body was due to decide whether to launch a commission of inquiry.[25] The ILO has not, however, absolved itself from the situation. Now in place is a three-year comprehensive technical cooperation program between the ILO and Qatar aimed at aiding Qatar develop a compliant legal framework for laborers and labor protections.

Although the ILO declined to institute one of its more powerful devices, the influence of the ILO on Qatar ought to be recognized. By publically entertaining the possibility of opening a commission of inquiry, ILO added its voice and coercive power to the crowd demanding reform. Unlike some of the other critics, the ILO had the ability to back-up their demands for reform with clear legal obligations on behalf of Qatar and consequences stemming from non-compliance with those obligations.


Make no mistake: Qatar has some way to go before achieving compliance with its ILO legal obligations. The ILO’s involvement, however, has pushed Qatar further in the direction of full compliance regarding the prohibition of forced labor. Now more than ever it seems that Qatar understands that actual change is necessary, that worker issues are not merely a public relations issue. We can hope that the three-year technical cooperation agreement continues Qatar’s progression. Lives are at stake.

[1] “2022 FIFA World Cup Awarded to Qatar,” FIFA News Centre (Dec. 2, 2010), (

[2] See Oliver Laughland, FIFA Official Took Bribes to Back Qatar’s 2022 World Cup Bid, Court Hears, Guardian (Nov. 14, 2017),

[3] See Karen Kaplan, Scientific Proof That a Summer in Doha is Too Hot – For Fans, L.A. Times (Aug. 23, 2014),, for a discussion of the extreme heat in Qatar and the dangers it poses to spectators and athletes. During the summer months of June and July—when the World Cup usually takes place—daily temperatures in Qatar regularly exceed 50˚C (120˚F). As part of its World Cup bid, Qatar claimed it would be able to counter the heat with outdoor air-conditioning, but this technology has either not been developed or deemed insufficient to adequately address the temperature concerns. Consequently, the 2022 World Cup will now take place in November and December, when temperatures are lower. Owen Gibson, World Cup 2022: The When, Why and What of a Winter Qatar Tournament, Guardian (Feb. 24, 2015),

[4] Aimee Lewis, Migrant Workers Subjected to Heat and Humidity Being Put at Risk, Says Human Rights Watch, CNN (Sept. 27, 2017),

[5] Barry Meier, Labor Scrutiny for FIFA as a World Cup Rises in the Qatar Desert, N.Y. Times (July 15, 2015),

[6] See James Montague, Qatar: From Obscure Desert Kingdom to World Cup Host, CNN (Dec. 3, 2010), See aslo Int’l Trade Union Confederation, The Case Against Qatar (Mar. 2014)( [hereinafter ITUC Report].

[7] See “Qatar’s Violations of the Prohibition of Forced Labor,” infra.

[8] See Terrence McCoy, Staggering Number of Workers Said to Die as Qatar Prepares for World Cup, Wash. Post (Apr. 15, 2014),

[9] “Ratifications of Qatar,” (date accessed: Feb. 20, 2018).

[10] See ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998). The obligations of the Declaration’s eight core conventions bind ILO member-states regardless of ratification, so even if Qatar had not ratified the two forced labor conventions, Qatar still has an obligation to prohibit forced labor as an ILO member.

[11] Qatar has announced its intention to terminate its Kafala system. See Conn, infra note 24.

[12] See e.g., ITUC Report, supra note 6.

[13] Id.

[14] See McCoy, supra note 8.

[15] See e.g., Meier, supra note 5. As a response to mounting criticism of its labor practices, Qatar hired law firm DLA Piper to review the country’s labor practices and provide recommendations for improvement. The DLA Piper report harshly criticized the situation in Qatar, and recommended various reforms including the abolition of the Kafala system. At the time of the article’s publication, Qatar had not realized those improvements.

[16] See Int’l Labour Org., Complaint Concerning Non-observance by Qatar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), and the Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81), Made by Delegates to the 103rd Session (2014) of the Int’l Labour Conference Under Article 26 of the ILO Constitution, G.B.331/INS/13(Rev.) (Oct. 31, 2017) (—ed_norm/—relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_586479.pdf).

[17] See Robert Booth, UN Gives Qatar a Year to End Forced Labour of Migrant Workers, Guardian (Mar. 24, 2016), (contending that Qatar was in violation of the convention against forced labor); see Int’l Labour Org., infra note 16 (detailing the allegations of Qatar violating the Forced Labour Convention (1930) and Labour Inspection Convention (1947)). See also Paula Renkiewicz, Comment, Sweat Makes the Green Grass Grow: The Dangerous Future of Qatar’s Migrant Workers in the Run Up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup Under the Kafala System and Recommendations for Effective Reform, 65 Am. U.L. Rev. 721 (2016) (arguing that Qatar’s Kafala system violates the UN protocol to combat human trafficking).

[18] Int’l Labour Org., supra note 16.

[19] See ILO Constitution art. 26, See also Booth, supra note 17.

[20] See e.g., Kimberly Ann Elliott, “The ILO and Enforcement of Core Labor Standards,” Int’l Econ. Pol’y Briefs, 2 (July 2000) (

[21] Press Release, Int’l Labour Org., ILO Governing Body Welcomes Qatar’s Commitment to Bolster Migrant Worker Rights, Int’l Labour Org. (Nov. 8, 2017) (–en/index.htm).

[22] Id.

[23] See Robert Booth & Annie Kelly, Migrant Workers in Qatar Still at Risk Despite Reforms, Warns Amnesty, Guardian (Dec. 12, 2016), (announcing that Qatar reforms would go into effect in December 2016, but that those reforms failed to abolish some of the exploitative aspects of Qatar’s labor system).

[24] See David Conn, Qatar World Cup Workers’ Rights to Improve with End of Kafala System, Claims Union, Guardian (Oct. 25, 2017),

[25] See Booth & Kelly, supra note 23.

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