As one of the world’s greatest sporting spectacles approaches, the hospitality industry still has time to do better by its workers
Today is [September 27, 2022] International Tourism Day and David Beckham’s latest glossy video promo for Qatar Tourism, which is being heavily promoted by the forthcoming World Cup hosts, will likely make it into one of your social feeds.
In it, Doha appears shining and luxurious; endless glass skyscrapers, hotels, parks and plazas form the horizon as Beckham tours the souqs and riviera.
What we do not see are the two million migrant workers recruited and far too often exploited, who are toiling to ensure Beckham and the rest of the global footballing elite are seamlessly looked after at every stage of their stay come November.
We are less than two months out from the Qatar World Cup 2022 and the emirate’s hospitality sector continues to expand, with hotels opening as late as this month. With an eye on the projected 1.25 million fans set to descend on Doha in November and December, the World Cup has been a huge driver for multinational hotel brands to expand and establish new operations in Qatar and the Gulf region, cashing in on the rush for Qatar to meet FIFA’s hosting requirements of 60,000 hotel rooms.
But these enormous profits continue to come at the expense of the migrant workers who form the backbone of the emirate’s hospitality workforce – hotels, security and catering personnel – and remain exposed to a range of labour rights violations through the course of their efforts.
Our data shows that of nearly 300 cases of alleged abuse recorded in Qatar since 2016, hotel and hospitality workers, and workers at security, cleaning and maintenance companies frequently contracted by hotels were impacted in 29% (87 cases).
Our research into the industry’s approach to worker welfare reveal that brands’ implementation of even basic human rights principles in Qatar leaves much to be desired. Minimal compliance with international standards on recruitment and failure to commit to disclose and remedy abuse (a basic human rights principle) are highly disappointing. For workers to escape the cycle of exploitation we need far bolder action from hotel brands now.
The hotel industry traditionally operates through long and complex global supply chains and business partnerships, outsourcing responsibility for contracting, with name brand hotels frequently maintaining they have no control or oversight of conditions for workers.
LIVING IN SQUALOR
Recently, we have seen the industry make welcome improvements in transparency of their business relationships. But action from brands operating in Qatar to mitigate exploitation risk of workers during recruitment, monitoring treatment of subcontracted workers and enabling workers to change jobs without fear of repercussions – a key reform made by the Qatari government to protect migrant workers – has been woefully limited.
The World Cup and the global power of football as a vehicle for social change have been touted as driving significant reforms of labour law in Qatar, including dismantling some of the worst forms of employer control afforded by the kafala system. Yet, last year, almost every hotel worker interviewed on this topic cited significant barriers to changing jobs, whether owing to lack of awareness of the reforms, or fear of detention and deportation in the worst cases.
Across the private sector, reports from NGOs show inconsistent implementation of the new labour laws. Most recently, over the summer, workers crucial to delivering tournament infrastructure were sent home amid allegations of wage theft and deception, and those who dared raise their voices to advocate for what they are owed were detained and deported.
Just one week ago, a Guardian investigation found landscapers manicuring the park outside Al Bayt stadium living in squalor, all having paid extortionate recruitment fees to get their jobs and reportedly having received none of the reimbursement their employer claims to have paid.
This reality should give fans, tournament sponsors and the football teams set to enjoy matches in stadiums and stay at hotels where migrant workers have suffered, pause for real thought.
Teams are currently booked in to stay at hotels whose brands have failed to commit fully to remedy recruitment abuse and repay fees to workers, while at least five hotels or bases booked by football associations have already been linked to allegations of migrant worker abuse.
Concerningly, when we approached football associations to ask them about their human rights due diligence, only a minority appeared to recognise the risk to human rights from their participation in the tournament, so allegations like those associated with the area around the Souq Al Wakra hotel where the England team will be staying should be no surprise.
As days to kick-off wind down, and allegations of worker abuse continue to mount, it is increasingly difficult to avoid considering the World Cup a lost opportunity for all stakeholders to pitch in and demand mitigation of the systemic human rights risks in hotel brands’ operations.
But while the window may have closed for wholesale overhaul to corporate practice before the World Cup, hotels still have time to commit to the basics – transparent reporting on risks to workers in Qatar during the tournament and clear commitment to remedy for workers who have suffered abuse or paid recruitment fees to get those jobs in the first place.
True labour rights reform can still be a legacy of the World Cup. Football associations, sponsors, FIFA, and – importantly – fans, must demand it.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Isobel Archer is the Gulf Programme Manager at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.