If you’re wondering why so many workers put up with these conditions, the truth is some of them have – literally – no choice. Having arrived, any foreign worker – including those from the UK – are subject to a sponsorship law known as ‘kafala’. Kafala gives employers a huge amount of power over their workers, often overriding those Qatari laws that are supposed to be on the workers’ side.
The worst of these is the exit visa. No worker can leave Qatar without the express permission of their official employer, even if they’ve quit. Migrant workers – including the footballers Abdeslam Ouaddou and Zahir Belounis – who try to challenge employers who cheat them out of pay are often left stranded in Qatar as a vindictive punishment or bargaining chip.
Just to make sure, many employers also steal passports from their workers and refuse to return them. This is technically illegal but, as with so many of Qatar’s so-called laws, not one employer has ever been prosecuted, despite that fact that almost 90% of low-paid migrant workers report having their passports taken from them.
The Qatari government has promised to change the kafala system, but it has refused to keep employers out of the exit visa process entirely: instead of having to get your employer’s permission, the changes mean you have to get your employer’s AND the government’s permission. Not only that, British companies like Interserve have been accused of using kafala to make their workforce accept huge pay cuts.
As a final insult, where kafala previously kept workers trapped for two years, they’re now stuck with one boss – no matter how abusive – for FIVE years.