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Harsh conditions for expat workers

Reese Erlich, QatarJune 19, 2015

In May, Qatar police arrested film crews from the BBC and ARD for filming the living conditions of workers building stadiums for the 2022 Football World Cup. For DW, Reese Erlich was able to get in and out undetected.

Katar Gastarbeiter in Doha
Image: DW/Reese Erlich 2015

The Sailiya Labor Camp houses tens of thousands of workers, mostly from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Driving in a beat-up old sedan so as not to attract police attention, the driver turns onto a paved street that quickly becomes a dirt road with massive potholes.

Four Sri Lankans emerge from a tumble-down wooden shack where they live. One worker, who declines to give his name fearing retaliation from his employer, says he earns the equivalent of 290 euros ($330) per month. And the working conditions are tough.

He and his friends work painting steel beams on construction sites in temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius. "When we're working at the sites, it's really hard," he said. During the height of the summer employers allow a long break during the hottest part of the day, but the summer regulations hadn't begun yet.

Shanty towns for the foreign workforce

Living conditions are very hard as well. The labor camp is owned by the employers and has grown up haphazardly as a shanty town over the years. The employers take no responsibility for providing the kinds of utilities most residents would expect.

Gastarbeiter in Katar, Baustellen der WM 2022
Poor housing conditions: a kitchen in workers' quartersImage: ARD/Die Story

Some tanker trucks bring water while others suck out the waste from latrines. Small generators are the only source of electricity.

A huge fire broke out in one section of the camp the day before my visit. Workers' housing and belongings burned up. "Everything was destroyed," said the Sri Lankan. "Four to five hundred workers were sitting outside on the street."

The Sri Lankans are part of an estimated 1 million expatriate laborers in Qatar hired under the kafala system. Employers sponsor workers from abroad and can easily deport them. International unions and human rights groups strongly criticize kafala, which is also used in other Gulf countries.

WM Baustelle Katar
A World Cup stadium under constructionImage: picture alliance / augenklick/firo Sportphoto

Under scrutiny

Qatar in particular has come under scrutiny since it started building facilities for the 2022 Football World Cup. One year ago Qatar announced a series of labor reforms, including the right for workers to keep their passports - key to being able to change jobs or leave the country. But in a dozen random interviews, every worker said employers still keep their passports.

"I keep hearing the new law is coming; the new law is coming, that you can keep your passport," said the Sri Lankan. "I don't know when it will be implemented."

Qatar government officials didn't return numerous calls requesting comment. But a Qatari former diplomat familiar with the controversy said, "Of course some companies, mostly western, don't follow the rules. We're doing all we can. We don't want our country built on exploited labor."

Gastarbeiter in Katar, Baustellen der WM 2022
Expat workers' housing in DoharImage: ARD/Die Story

Luciano Zaccara, an assistant professor at Qatar University, says the government isn't doing enough. For example, it needs to hire more inspectors and government officials to enforce the law.

"The government should do something more aggressive against companies," he said. "I think there aren't enough people here."

Late paychecks

Workers also frequently complain about middle men who do the actual hiring on behalf of big corporations. One Kenyan worker helping build Doha's new light rail system says his pay is good and praises the fairness of his immediate supervisors.

But the labor contractor who hired him consistently pays wages 2-3 weeks late, he says, making it difficult to buy food and other necessities.

"It comes to the point we are starving," he said. "But we don't have any other option. We cannot strike."

Analyst Zaccara notes strikes and even unions are banned in Qatar and most other Gulf countries. "To allow trade unions means giving political rights," he said. "They don't want to think about granting any foreigner political rights in the region."

Zaccara says Qatari officials face a lot of bad publicity because of the kafala employment system, and that could lead to reforms.

"They are very worried because this is a very bad image for Qatar," he said. "They are changing things. They are serious about that. How much this will affect foreign workers, we will see in the future."

Despite the problematic conditions, workers continue to flock to Qatar because they earn much more there than in their home countries. They send money home to support extended families, build simple homes and pay for their children's education.

Al-Thani bei Merkel 17.09.2014 Berlin
Qatar's ruler Al-Thani is facing critical questionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Wolfgang Kumm

The Sri Lankan worker says he's certainly no rich man. But his relatives back home think he is. "My cousins think I'm earning a big amount of money," he said with a laugh.

While workers continue to seek jobs in Qatar, they also hope that international attention focused on the 2022 World Cup will help improve their lives.