Qatar's Luxury Hotels Must Protect Migrant Workers Ahead of World Cup 2022 | Opinion

Qatar and FIFA are keen to paint next year's tournament a success in anticipation of welcoming 1.7 million football fans, sponsors and media to the small Gulf state. The number dwarfs the Qatari population of 300,000 but still falls short of the almost 2 million migrant workers currently toiling in the country.

That legion of migrant workers is only set to grow over the next 11 months, as Qatari-based companies look toward South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Africa to recruit and expand their workforces. Local business is set to draw huge revenue from these visitors, with the hospitality sector—the glitzy, luxury hotels where fans will stay, and high-end restaurants and venues—especially well-placed to benefit from both World Cup fans and the low-cost migrant laborers on whom the Gulf state depends.

These workers are integral to the success of the World Cup, a spectacle which turns on its ability to bring together countries and communities in a joyous celebration of football. However, many workers will be arriving in Qatar burdened by debt due to extortionate (and in some cases, illegal) recruitment fees and find jobs which do not match what was promised by agencies in their home countries. Desperation for employment, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic and poor job opportunities back home, means workers are ripe for exploitation. This toxic combination risks blighting the Qatar World Cup 2022. Qatar's luxury hotel brands are currently seeking workers to fill the positions of cleaners, cooks, security and housekeeping staff, to ensure fans, teams and sponsors enjoy an unforgettable FIFA World Cup experience.

But at what cost?

In July, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre published a report surveying 19 of the largest multinational hotel brands in the world on what they are doing to protect migrant workers in their Qatar hotels. It's believed many of them will be entering into lucrative agreements with FIFA to host football fans, media and sponsors. Disappointingly, just 11 brands responded and only a small minority recognized the risks inherent in the recruitment process or took proactive steps to mitigate that risk, despite the workers' payment of thousands of dollars to secure jobs—a key driver of labor abuse in the region.

The report featured interviews with workers either currently or previously employed in Qatar's hotels, with their testimony often in stark contradiction to information disclosed by the brands. Of the 18 workers interviewed, eight said they had paid recruitment fees between $500 and $2,360. Several discussed the toll taking out high-interest loans (many times their monthly salary) to cover the cost of a job had taken on themselves or their families, with the strain of keeping up with repayment plans on low salaries clear.

Just two companies, Hilton Hotels and IHG Hotels & Resorts, disclosed they had uncovered recruitment fee-paying among their 2019 and 2020 workforces, but only IHG disclosed two workers in one hotel had paid fees and been reimbursed—a welcome step toward transparency. Yet most brands failed to outline any satisfactorily robust steps to safeguard against fee-charging, signaling a shockingly casual approach to the issue and a plain lack of preparedness.

Only three brands, Accor, Kempinski Hotels and Hilton described routinely conducting interviews with workers to establish if fees were paid. Instead, several brands told us they relied on accredited agencies in workers' home countries; yet there are documented cases of accredited agencies charging fees. This simply does not constitute the level of human rights due diligence on recruitment channels needed to prevent abuse and exploitation.

Workers are seen at a construction site
Workers are seen at a construction site in Doha. AFP via Getty Images

Many companies told us they publicly committed to the Employer Pays Principle, the standard for fair recruitment, yet just two, Kempinski and Radisson Hotels, provided evidence of a policy that fully complies with the principle. None of the workers who had paid fees reported their employer had repaid their recruitment costs. Four more companies stated they prohibit worker-paid fees but did not commit to bearing the cost themselves; in contrast, Deutsche Hospitality clearly outlined three instances where it would not cover administrative and medical costs required of workers. International Labour Organization (ILO) guidance is clear such costs are integral to the recruitment process and should be borne by the employer.

Earlier this year, a Nepali recruitment agency was raided and banned by the Nepali government for charging high fees. We identified the brands using the agency and asked them to respond. While it was positive some brands responded by outlining the actions they were taking, it was troubling that responses suggested brands still do not have a sufficiently clear understanding of what is meant by "recruitment costs" as set out by the ILO guidance. Marriott International Millennium and Hilton's replies suggested they relied on a narrow definition of fees which leaves workers at risk of bearing administrative costs such as visa or processing fees.

A further report alleged that so-called project visas are being misused by World Cup contractors to recruit for short-term workers from Nepal. Short-term contracts are not approved by the Nepali government, nor are the clients processing workers through the Qatar Visa Centers, reportedly leaving them exposed to risks of contract substitution and recruitment fee-charging. Many of the recruitment agencies involved also provide workers to hospitality and hotels.

Several months on, a Guardian investigation into the situation of workers in FIFA-endorsed Doha hotels found workers on low salaries, unable to change jobs and still paying extortionate fees to agencies.

With multiple cases coming to light, it is clear debt and exploitation will be the legacy of the World Cup unless urgent action is taken by luxury hotel brands. Many migrant workers are likely to be recruited for a relatively short period of time and after the tournament will be surplus to requirements—meaning if they do pay a recruitment fee, they are unlikely to even stay long enough to pay it off. Our research revealed hotels are far from tackling the issue of unfair recruitment head on and only a minority have a true understanding of the severe risk of labor abuse associated with recruitment fees. Even fewer are proactively safeguarding workers or prepared to remedy fees in full when workers are found to have paid them.

As the eyes of the world shift to Doha, Qatari hotels, FIFA and other employers are looking outwards to Nepal, India, the Philippines, Kenya and other major labor sending states for the workforce which will host fans and other visitors. They must ensure that paper commitments to the Employer Pays Principle and tackling unfair recruitment are backed up by rigorous checks and robust due diligence so the workers central to the success of this event are not left burdened with the financial and emotional toll of obtaining employment.

Isobel Archer is Gulf programme manager at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an independent nonprofit organization that tracks the human rights impacts of over 10,000 companies, in over 180 countries.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.