Landmark Study of Migrants Shines Light on Qatar—Host of 2022 World Cup

July 1, 2013


The first sweeping analysis of Middle East migrant workers' lives is published in Journal of Arabian Studies


TACOMA, Wash. – Ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it is not only the eyes of soccer fans and journalists that are turning to the tiny Middle Eastern state. Activist groups such as Human Rights Watch hope to use the glare of publicity on the world’s richest nation (per capita) to apply pressure on all Arabian authoritarian regimes to pay more heed to local humanitarian issues.

The seriousness of one of those issues—the fate of millions of “invisible” migrant laborers who build and support the region’s major cities—is now backed by new evidence, with the publication of the first extensive scientific study of these workers.

Lead author, Andrew Gardner, professor of anthropology at University of Puget Sound, today published in the  Journal of Arabian Studies a detailed record of living and working conditions for migrant laborers in Qatar. The work is based on three years of research, a survey of nearly 1,200 low-income migrants, and numerous interviews.

The study, “A Portrait of Low-Income Migrants in Contemporary Qatar,” was conducted with Carnegie Mellon University Qatar and Qatar University researchers (see details below). It provides the first broad quantified data on issues such as passport confiscation, withholding of wages, debts to labor brokers, deceptive recruiting practices, and overcrowded labor camps. Armed with these facts, rather than small studies or hearsay, reformers will be better equipped to help Qatar address this pressing issue.

“We recognize that the experiences and challenges of these migrant workers are growing areas of concern for both Qataris and the rest of the world,” Gardner said. “This study seeks to provide all of us—Qatari ministries, researchers, nongovernment organizations, and human rights activists—with better information that can help guide reform.

“Beyond that, our end goal remains unchanged: to improve the lives of the million-plus migrants who journey to Qatar in search of a better life for themselves and their families.”

Over the next nine years, tens of thousands more workers will be recruited from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Pakistan, and elsewhere to build the infrastructure for the 32-nation soccer tournament, which regularly attracts some 300,000 visiting fans and a global television audience. Qatar has promised 12 state-of-the-art, air-conditioned stadiums and it is continuing to build a tourist and business mecca of hotels, offices, museums, and leisure facilities.

“Without a proactive and established legal and regulatory system in place and in operation, the fate of a low-income migrant worker depends heavily on his or her sponsor and that sponsor’s proxies,” Gardner wrote in the study.

The new migrant study looked at mainly male, foreign workers with an income of less than QR2,000 (US$549) a month. They were largely employed as construction workers, drivers, cleaners, security guards, and salesmen. The findings included:

  • Workers paid brokers an average of about US$1,000 to be transported from their home countries to a promised job, but this fee varied enormously by country
  • Only 44 percent of the workers signed a contract before emigrating from home, relying instead on the word of labor brokers, acquaintances, or friends working in Qatar
  • 90 percent said their passports were held by their employers
  • 56 percent did not have a government-mandated “health card” needed for health care
  • 21 percent said they were paid on time only “sometimes, rarely, or never”
  • 15 percent were given different jobs, and 20 percent different wages, than they were promised
  • On average the workers lived six people to a room; 40 percent lived in dormitories
  • Wages varied greatly; Nepalese workers got some of the lowest pay, Filipino workers the highest
  • Managers of the migrant workers are generally migrants themselves

Overall it is estimated that more than 11 million foreign workers are employed in the oil-rich states of the Arabian Peninsula. The conditions in Qatar are thought to be representative of those elsewhere in the Middle East, Gardner said. The study was based on work funded by the Qatar National Research Fund.

To request a media copy of “A Portrait of Low Income Migrants in Contemporary Qatar,” contact Shirley Skeel at sskeel@pugetsound.edu or 00-1-253-879-2611.

Researcher-Authors:

Andrew M. Gardner is associate professor of anthropology at University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Wash., USA, gardner@pugetsound.edu
Silvia Pessoa
is associate teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, spessoa@qatar.cmu.edu
Abdoulaye Diop is head of research at SESRI at Qatar University, adiop@qu.edu.qa
Kaltham Al-Ghanim is associate professor of sociology in the Department of Social Sciences at Qatar University, kaltham.alghanim@qu.edu.qa
Kien Le Trung is research associate at SESRI at Qatar University, kienle@qu.edu.qa
Laura Harkness
was the research associate on this project, laura.m.harkness@gmail.com
Special thanks also goes to Aliyah SImcoff ’12, research assistant at University of Puget Sound.

Andrew Gardner is a sociocultural anthropologist and associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. He is the author of City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain (2010, Cornell University Press) and co-editor of the e-book Constructing Qatar: Migrant Narratives from the Margins of the Global System (2012). His research has been published in Anthropology Today, Journal of Arabian Studies, City and Society, and elsewhere. He also has contributed book chapters to academic works. Gardner is currently focusing his work and scholarship in the Gulf States of the Arabian Peninsula, and exploring transnational labor.

Press photos of migrant workers and Andrew Gardner are available by emailing sskeel@pugetsound.edu

Photos on page: Top right: Workers on a bus in Qatar; Above left: Andrew Gardner; Above right: workers in their dormatory in Qatar.

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