In September 2015 preparatory work commenced on the planned site of the Lusail Iconic Stadium in Qatar. The 80,000-seat football facility, which was designed by the UK-based architecture firm Foster + Partners, is expected to serve as the flagship stadium during the 2022 FIFA World Cup, hosting both the opening and final matches of the tournament.

It is the sixth World Cup stadium construction project to be launched in Qatar, out of the total of eight match venues proposed in its World Cup bid. Like the rest of the stadia and, indeed, almost all of the construction work currently being carried out in Qatar and across the Gulf region, Lusail Stadium will be built by foreign labourers. Indeed, with a native population of approximately 250,000, according to the state’s most recent census data, from 2015 Qatar has relied almost exclusively on migrant workers to meet the labour needs of its rapidly expanding construction sector over the past decade. Consequently, as of the end of October 2015, foreign labourers – the vast majority of them unskilled construction workers from Asian nations – made up some 80-86% of the nation’s total population of 2.55m, according to data from the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics (MDPS) and the Jeddah-based Gulf Research Centre.

Expanded Protection

In recent years, the treatment of this large itinerant workforce has become a point of contention in Qatar, with various media and international organisations censuring the state for the living and labour conditions of its migrant labourer population. Criticism in this vein has ramped up considerably since Qatar was awarded hosting rights to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in December 2010. Most recently, in late March 2016 Amnesty International issued a critique of both Qatar and FIFA in reference to the labourers involved in renovating the 50,000-seat Khalifa International Stadium.

In response to this and similar past critiques, in recent years Qatar has put human rights at the centre of its infrastructure development plans, introducing a raft of new initiatives and legislation aimed at ensuring that foreign labourers are treated well and compensated fairly, in line with international best practice. In the years since 2013 various state entities have published and worked to enforce new guidelines for labour accommodation at construction sites, banning work at sites during the hottest hours of the day in summer, and increasing site inspections.

As a consequence, the state has issued a number of infractions to employers, and is working to ensure labourers are aware of their rights and know how to file a complaint with the government if necessary. Most recently, in October 2015 the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, approved a series of reforms to the nation’s so-called kafala (sponsorship) system, which applies to the bulk of the unskilled workers in the construction industry. Under existing kafala regulations, migrant labourers are allowed to leave Qatar only with the permission of their employers, and workers who leave a job at the end of the contract are required to wait at least two years before they can return to Qatar for a job with another employer. Under the new regulations, which come into effect in December 2016, migrant labourers will have more freedom to leave Qatar of their own accord, and will also have an easier time switching jobs at the end of a contract. The new law also provides a grievance committee for cases in which sponsors refuse to grant exit visas.

Population Driver

All six of the GCC states have seen an influx of migrant workers in recent decades, as a result of rising demand linked to both a regional construction boom and increased investor interest in the region since the early 2000s. In Qatar, however, the inflow of migrant labourers has jumped dramatically since the country’s current infrastructure drive began in 2010-11. Indeed, as of February 2016 the nation was home to a total population of 2.55m people, according to official data from the MDPS, up 12.3% on November 2014 and a full 50% from the end of 2010. According to MDPS data, as of February 2016 over 75% of the population was male, which reflected a large number of migrant labourers.

While official population figures by nationality are not available in Qatar, a late-2014 local media report citing embassy data listed the total number of Indians in Qatar at around 545,000, followed by Nepalese migrants (400,000), Filipinos (200,000), Egyptians (180,000), Bangladeshis (150,000), Sri Lankans (100,000) and Pakistanis (90,000).

Launching Reforms

Following a handful of media investigations by international NGOs that were critical of Qatar’s labour standards, in 2013 the government commissioned UK-based law firm DLA Piper to examine the allegations and recommend reforms.

The report, titled “Migrant Labour in the Construction Sector in the State of Qatar”, was published in April 2014 and included a variety of proposals that continue to influence the country’s efforts in these areas today. Among these are adopting a comprehensive set of worker welfare standards and applying them universally; introducing and better enforcing new legislation to prohibit solicitation and receipt of recruitment fees from migrant workers; improving communication with migrant workers to ensure proper treatment and payment; review and potential reform of the kafala system; and more active monitoring, penalising or blacklisting of contractors that breach health and safety standards.

Even before the DLA Piper report was released, a number of government entities had moved to institute changes with regard to labour and human rights. In May 2013, for instance, Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), a federal advisory body, issued a raft of guidelines for migrant worker housing at construction sites. The new standards, drawn up in conjunction with the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Municipality and Environment, the Ministry of Interior, the Qatar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Ministry of Public Health, included recommendations concerning housing (at least four sq metres of space per worker, no bunk beds and no more than four beds per room), access to medical care and kitchens, access to electricity, water and lavatories, and minimum air circulation and air conditioning standards. The NHRC’s guidelines formed the basis for Ministerial Decision No. 18, published in November 2014, which formally mandated the adoption of minimum housing and living standards.

In February 2014, meanwhile, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the state entity responsible for overseeing Qatar’s World Cup preparations, published a new set of worker welfare standards, developed in conjunction with a number of domestic and international entities, including Human Rights Watch. Since then the committee has issued regular compliance reports on the implementation and continued development of standards. The most recent of these covers the period October 2014 to March 2015, and notes that as of March 2015 around 2800 labourers were employed on stadium sites. However, according to international estimates, this is expected to jump to 36,000 by 2018. As the committee notes, since the implementation of the worker welfare standards began quality of life for construction workers has improved considerably. In December 2015 the committee released an update to the original worker welfare standards blueprint, assessing progress and further defining future benchmarks.


Since the DLA Piper report was published the government has stepped up its efforts to implement labour reforms. One of the most recent changes to policy is the introduction of the new Wage Protection System (WPS), which came into effect in November 2015. The legislation, which has been in development since 2013, aims to ensure that all migrant workers receive their salary payments on time. Contractors’ failure to pay construction workers on time has been one of the primary lines of labour-related complaints in Qatar. Under the WPS, domestic banks will be required to open accounts for foreign workers, and employers are mandated to make electronic salary transactions either monthly or twice a month. Violation could entail fines of up to QR6000 ($1650) and possible imprisonment.

Finally, under the new kafala system rules announced in October 2015 and to come into effect in December 2016, foreign workers who wish to leave Qatar for any reason will be able to apply for permission to depart to the Ministry of Interior at least three days beforehand. If the state does not grant permission, workers will be able to file a complaint to a newly established grievance committee. They will also be allowed to move to a new job at the end of a fixed-term contract. Despite some criticism from international observers, the reforms are widely expected to have a positive impact on Qatar’s foreign labourers.