Many migrant workers paid exorbitant and illegal recruitment fees to make the 2022 World Cup in Qatar possible, Human Rights Watch said today. But FIFA and Qatari authorities have yet to commit to a remedy fund for serious abuses against migrant workers, including many workers in serious debt from paying these fees.
“With 30 days left until the tournament, there is a slim window for FIFA and Qatari authorities to correct course and commit to remedying past abuses that have stained the 2022 World Cup,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Unless FIFA and Qatar act, then the real ‘legacy’ of this tournament will be how FIFA, Qatar, and anyone profiting from this World Cup left families of thousands of migrant workers indebted after they died and left many migrant workers who had their wages stolen uncompensated.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 45 migrant workers, between November 2021 and October 2022, from Bangladesh, India, Kenya, and Nepal, including seven families of deceased migrant workers; 26 recruiters from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal; five Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy contractors; and three migrant workers working in human resources departments of three Qatar-based recruitment companies.
Migrant workers said they had paid unaffordable recruitment fees by borrowing at high interest rates, selling assets, and depleting family savings. Many workers fell into debt bondage and were unable to leave their job, leaving them more vulnerable to abuse and subject to further penalties if they failed to work. Debt bondage is a form of forced labor under international labor standards.
Past investigations and research, including on behalf of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the body responsible for planning and delivering World Cup infrastructure, have indicated the pervasive nature of recruitment fees that often take months, even years, of wages to pay, even though they are illegal in Qatar.
The Supreme Committee imposed the Worker Welfare Standards in 2014 on all companies contracted to work on their projects, which among other standards designed to promote worker welfare, require contractors to ensure that workers are not charged any fees, and are reimbursed if they are. However, a 2021 audit of Supreme Committee projects found that 68 percent of workers paid an average of US$1,333 in recruitment fees.
In 2017, the Supreme Committee introduced the Universal Reimbursement Scheme, requiring a contractor either to prove that workers did not pay any fees or to reimburse the worker. As of December 2021, QAR 83.20 million (US$21.96 million) had been paid under this program out of the committed QAR 103.95 million ($28.4 million).
This initiative, while promising, is not mandatory even among contractors that operate projects affiliated with the Supreme Committee. It covers fewer than 50,000 workers, a fraction of the millions of migrant workers who are making the 2022 World Cup possible. The government of Qatar should consider scaling up the program as part of a wider effort to remedy abuses suffered by workers.
In many cases that Human Rights Watch documented, families were left to deal with loan sharks who continued to demand the debt repayment their deceased loved ones owed. Bulani Sahani, the father of a migrant worker who died in Qatar in 2022, struggled to take care of his grandchildren because his son had incurred debt from recruitment fees: “My son went [to Qatar] after borrowing money [$1,106] from many villagers. Now everyone keeps asking for it. They say that I must have received compensation for my son’s death, but I haven’t received a single rupee. How will I repay them? I don’t even have land to sell to pay them.”
Qatari authorities have previously stated that the practice of charging high recruitment fees is largely outside Qatar’s jurisdiction, but they have so far failed to address the role that Qatar-based businesses play in passing costs to recruiters that they know will be borne by workers.
While origin country recruitment agencies are notorious for charging workers illegal recruitment costs and fees, Human Rights Watch found that businesses based in Qatar are contributing to recruitment fees by imposing costs on recruiters that they know will be passed down to workers.