Checked Out: Migrant Worker Abuse in Qatar’s World Cup Luxury Hotels

As kick-off to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 draws closer many national football teams have taken recent stands against racial injustice to highlight the plight of migrant workers in Qatar.

As far back as 2019, Liverpool Football Club refused FIFA’s offer to stay in the Masa Malaz Kempinski during the Club World Cup after a Guardian investigation alleged forced labour among subcontracted workers. Football’s increasing consciousness of human rights issues will be tested once again when the teams arrive in Qatar. To manage the expected influx of players, supporters and the media, the Gulf state has seen exponential growth of the hotel industry, with an additional 26,000 hotel rooms brought on stream in time for the World Cup. Yet our research shows hotel brands have failed to take necessary action to protect migrant workers, who suffer serious abuses including extortionate recruitment fees, discrimination and being trapped in a job through fear of reprisal and intimidation. These occurred despite “landmark” labour reforms which promised to end the Kafala system.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (the Resource Centre) invited 19 hotel companies, representing more than 100 global brands with over 80 properties across Qatar, to participate in a second survey on their approach to safeguarding migrant workers’ rights in the country. We were pleased to see increased engagement from the industry this time, with 11 out of 19 (58%) responses, compared with seven out of 17 (41%) responses to the previous survey. However, it is disappointing that several high-profile brands, including Best Western, Four Seasons and Millennium & Copthorne, failed to respond. Our survey revealed a widespread lack of action by hotel brands to prevent and exclude forced labour. This reinforced the stream of stories from workers about abuse taking place in hotels, but the survey also highlighted a cluster of companies who have shown greater leadership. IHG Hotels & Resorts, which was not one of the leaders identified in our previous report, had significantly improved aspects of its approach and was the highest-ranked company this time.

A central pillar of our research involved engaging with partners to interview workers at hotels we approached. In the first half of 2021, Equidem interviewed migrant workers in Qatar’s hospitality sector for the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) report “Checked Out: Migrant Worker Abuse in Qatar’s World Cup Luxury Hotels.” Interviews were conducted between April and June 2021 with workers at hotels in Qatar who originated from countries in East Africa, South Asia and South-East Asia. The men and women interviewed were employed by enterprises of major target hospitality brands and by their sub-contractors and suppliers.

This testimony revealed a shocking contrast between hotels’ public policy commitments and their practical application or enforcement. This was particularly evident in recruitment processes, where eight out of 18 workers reported being charged high fees for jobs despite the fact that only IHG provided transparent figures for the number of workers it identified had paid such fees. The interviews also revealed discrimination in position and pay based on nationality and far worse treatment of subcontracted workers. Most alarmingly, almost all workers reported being scared to request to change jobs when they saw a better opportunity, with some fearful the hotels would report them to the authorities and subsequently have them deported. Much of this points to conditions of ‘forced labour’ as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Unfortunately, the responses by brands revealed none conducted worker-centric monitoring of the conditions of subcontracted workers despite this vulnerable group often working long-term for the hotel brand.

Our findings should make for troubling reading for the national football teams and one million visitors who are planning a joyful month of sport in Qatar in November 2022, but not at the expense of workers’ misery. It should also be a red flag for corporate sponsors of the World Cup. Huge profits are set to be made by the multinational and national hotel brands which will host these visitors. Meanwhile, migrant workers from East Africa, South Asia and South-East Asia, who make up the vast majority of the workforce in the hospitality sector and will be integral to the success of one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world, will not be able to relish the moment. Instead, they are likely to be left dealing with debts and discrimination, trapped in jobs through intimidation and threats. The eyes of the world are currently on Qatar; teams, fans, media and corporate sponsors will all need to book hotels for their stay, providing a rare opportunity to push for lasting change from a sector which lags behind many others in its protection of migrant workers.

Following this, Equidem also helped the BHRRC team with data management and analysis of the findings and testimonies from workers for the report. Equidem has a long association with the BHRRC, including past research and advocacy collaboration regarding migrant worker rights in the Gulf countries.