Criticism has rained down on Qatar since last week’s exposé in the Guardian newspaper of the Gulf state’s failure to prevent mistreatment of its migrant workers.
The media focus on Qatar is understandable. Many of the country’s migrant workers endure appalling human rights abuses with little chance of redress, and the authorities have failed to make any meaningful labor reforms, though rights groups have documented the problems in detail. After all, Qatar did choose to host the world’s highest-profile sporting event – the World Cup – and it shouldn’t be surprised when the international media takes an interest in allegations of slavery.
While the media storm rumbles on, it is important to point out that migrant worker abuses are not unique to Qatar, or to the construction sector. The abuses the Guardian revealed are part of a regional problem that afflicts low-paid workers in various fields. Taxi drivers in the United Arab Emirates, domestic workers in Kuwait, street cleaners in Bahrain, oil-field workers in Saudi Arabia, and security guards in Oman face the same abuses as construction workers in Qatar, and the reasons are more or less identical.
None of these countries have taken meaningful steps to reform the kafala, or sponsorship, system central to the exploitation. In all the Gulf States, sponsors confiscate passports and recruitment agencies charge workers fees, and almost all Gulf States prohibit migrant workers from joining trade unions and collective bargaining. Instead, they should allow workers to freely change jobs to escape abuse.
In this case, the media has singled out Qatar, but all of the Gulf States have a very serious problem that they have long failed to address.