Qatar: Security guards subjected to forced labour
Many guards knew their employers were breaking the law but felt powerless to challenge them. Physically and emotionally exhausted, they kept reporting for duty under threat of financial penalties or even deportation.Stephen Cockburn, Head of Economic and Social Justice
Security guards in Qatar are working in conditions which amount to forced labour, including on projects linked to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Amnesty International has found. In a new report, They think that we’re machines, the organization documented the experiences of 34 current or former employees of eight private security companies in Qatar.
The security guards, all migrant workers, described routinely working 12 hours a day, seven days a week – often for months or even years on end without a day off. Most said their employers refused to respect the weekly rest day which is required by Qatari law, and workers who took their day off anyway faced being punished with arbitrary wage deductions. One man described his first year in Qatar as “survival of the fittest”.
In 2017 Qatar embarked on a promising agenda to tackle labour issues. It has introduced important legal reforms including a new minimum wage and improved access to justice, and repealed key aspects of the abusive kafala system. However, these reforms are not being effectively implemented. What’s more, many of the abuses Amnesty International documented are violations of Qatari laws and regulations predating the reforms.
Many guards knew their employers were breaking the law but felt powerless to challenge them. Physically and emotionally exhausted, they kept reporting for duty under threat of financial penalties or even deportation— Stephen Cockburn, Head of Economic and Social Justice
“The abuses we uncovered can all be traced back to the massive power imbalance that still exists between employers and migrant workers in Qatar, indicating that there are still major gaps in the authorities’ enforcement of labour laws. Many of the security guards we spoke to knew their employers were breaking the law but felt powerless to challenge them. Physically and emotionally exhausted, workers kept reporting for duty under threat of financial penalties – or worse, contract termination or deportation,” said Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Head of Economic and Social Justice.
“Despite the progress Qatar has made in recent years, our research suggests that abuses in the private security sector – which will be increasingly in demand during the World Cup – remain systematic and structural. Employers are still exploiting their workers in plain sight, and the Qatari authorities must take urgent measures to protect workers and hold abusers accountable.”
Amnesty International is calling on Qatar to urgently investigate abuses in the private security sector, publish its findings, and offer redress for workers, including ensuring they get adequate rest and pay. Qatar should also publish a detailed action plan for effectively tackling forced labour practices in the sector.
Abuses on World Cup-related sites
Amnesty International conducted in-depth interviews with 34 current or former security guards, supervisors and safety officers between April 2021 and February 2022. This built on earlier research in 2017 and 2018 when the organization interviewed 25 guards from one security company. The consistency of their accounts across multiple companies indicates that the abuses they faced are systemic, rather than isolated incidents.
The 34 workers interviewed for the latest report were employed by eight different private companies, which have provided services for sites including government ministries and football stadiums, as well as other infrastructure projects that will be essential for the 2022 World Cup, such as hotels, transport systems and sports facilities. At least three of the companies have provided security for FIFA tournaments, including the 2020 FIFA Club World Cup (postponed to 2021) and the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup.
They would say ‘we don’t have enough security, so you have to work’. We didn’t have any option. If your supervisor says go to duty you have to go, or they cut your salary.— Edson*
In 2020, FIFA and its partner in Qatar, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, pledged to do more to improve the working and living conditions of people employed in the service and hospitality sectors in Qatar. Enhanced labour standards have been expanded to cover World Cup service workers, and the bodies have embarked on other initiatives, especially for hotel staff. But these promises have yet to fully materialize in the security sector, as Amnesty International’s report illustrates.
“They think that we’re machines”
Qatari law and regulations restrict working hours to a maximum of 60 hours per week, including overtime, and is clear that everyone is entitled to one full, paid rest day each week. This reflects international law and standards – rest is a fundamental human right.
Imagine working a 12-hour shift then being driven to the training centre, then you do training for eight hours. All night… They think that we’re machines.— Zeke*
Despite this, 29 of the 34 security guards told Amnesty International they had regularly worked 12 hours a day, and 28 said they were routinely denied their day off, meaning many worked 84 hours per week, for weeks on end.
Milton*, from Kenya, worked for a security company at a hotel until 2021. He said that on a typical day he would leave his accommodation at 6.30 am and return at 8 pm, and that he often went months without a single day off. Abdul, from Bangladesh, worked as a security guard from 2018 to mid-2021, and said he did not have a day off for three years.
Zeke, from Uganda, worked at the FIFA Club World Cup in February 2021. He told Amnesty International how he had to complete a week-long training session in preparation for the tournament. The eight-hour training took place immediately after his regular shift each day.
“Imagine working a 12-hour shift then being driven to the training centre, then you do training for eight hours. All night. Then you report to work at 5am – you get four hours sleep and you train the whole week. They think that we’re machines,” Zeke said.
To take the rest day they were legally entitled to, security guards had to seek express permission from their employers. This was often refused and taking a rest day without permission could result in wage deductions, amounting to forced labour. The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines forced labour as work that is performed involuntarily or under the threat of penalty, including financial penalty.
There is no way to challenge it. Yes, we know the rules, and what the labour law says, but how can you challenge this? You are not in a position to do so.— Juma*
Edson, from Uganda, said of his employer:
“They would say ‘we don’t have enough security, so you have to work’. We didn’t have any option. If your supervisor says go to duty you have to go, or they cut your salary.”
Jacob, also from Uganda, used to work for a company guarding access roads and receiving deliveries at Khalifa International Stadium. He told Amnesty International that taking the mandatory rest day without permission could result in a penalty of up to 200 riyals (more than five days’ pay).
They say Friday is an off day, but it is an off that you don’t have…You cannot complain – if you do you are terminated and deported.— Lawrence*
Many guards travelled to Qatar having paid hefty recruitment fees, only to find that the pay and working conditions were very different to what they had been promised. Workers often felt unable to complain for fear of the consequences, as Lawrence, from Kenya, explained:
“They say at the job you have a lunch break of one hour, but we don’t have one and they don’t pay you. They say Friday is an off day, but it is an off that you don’t have…You cannot complain – if you do you are terminated and deported.”
Amnesty International also found that four of the companies in the report are still not paying overtime at the rate required by law, meaning they are in some cases cheating guards out of hundreds of riyals – sometimes as much as eight days’ pay – each month.
Penalties for illness, toilet breaks
Qatari law requires that employees prove their illness from day one of their absence, with a note from a doctor approved by their employer. However, in a context where migrant workers can struggle to access healthcare, for example due to location or lack of available free time as described above, this rule is often unrealistic and allows abusive employers to further punish workers .
Ben, from Uganda, told Amnesty International he worked 18 months straight without a rest day. One day in 2021 he was ill and stayed home. Ben said his supervisor told him there was not enough manpower for him to take the day off sick, and two days’ pay were docked from his wages – one for the absence, and one for not providing a sick note.
Some guards reported being heavily financially penalised for ‘misdemeanours’ such as not wearing their uniform properly, or for leaving their post to use the toilet without someone to cover for them.
Juma described how powerless workers felt to object to such penalties:
“There is no way to challenge it. Yes, we know the rules, and what the labour law says, but how can you challenge this? You are not in a position to do so.”
Migrant workers in Qatar are prohibited from forming or joining trade unions, which exacerbates the power imbalance.
Harsh working and living conditions
Fifteen of the guards Amnesty International interviewed were routinely deployed outside in intense heat, including during summer months when outdoor working is supposed to be restricted, and in some cases with no shelter or drinking water. This is despite the well-documented risk that heat stress poses to workers’ lives.
Since 2017, Qatar has implemented restrictions on outdoor working during the hottest months. In 2021 the summer working hours ban was extended and migrant workers were given the right to stop working if they believe the heat is threatening their health. But Amnesty International’s research shows that authorities must do more to enforce protections for outdoor workers, including those in the security sector.
Emmanuel, who was deployed to a luxury hotel to patrol the swimming pool, car park and beach, said:
“When it is very hot, sometimes the Qatar laws say no one is allowed to work outside… but security [guards], where are we supposed to go?”
Similarly, although the Qatari authorities have issued clear guidelines on living conditions, Amnesty International heard from eighteen of the security guards that their accommodation was overcrowded and unsanitary.
They say ‘you are an African, you can work 12 hours because you are strong’.— Omar*
Amnesty International also documented discrimination on the basis of race, national origin and language. The security guards interviewed for the report, who are mostly from Uganda and Kenya, said that workers from sub-Saharan Africa are often deployed in the harshest conditions, for example those which require them to work in the heat for long periods. They also said they received lower wages than other guards, in particular Arabic-speaking workers, for doing the same jobs.
Asher, from Kenya, was stationed at various sites in Qatar until 2021. He said:
“They pay us by nationality. You may find a Kenyan is earning 1,300, but the same security from the Philippines gets 1,500. Tunisians, 1,700. Pay is according to nationality”.
Omar said his bosses used racist stereotypes to justify harsh and discriminatory treatment of him and his colleagues:
“They say ‘you are an African, you can work 12 hours because you are strong’.”
Accounts of racial discrimination echo the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, who visited Qatar in late 2019. While Qatar has no specific law prohibiting racial discrimination, such treatment is still in breach of Qatar’s constitution and international law.
FIFA direct links to abusive employers
FIFA and the Supreme Committee did not renew the contracts of two of the three companies that were providing security to World Cup sites and reported them to the Ministry of Labour after they found evidence themselves of some of the issues Amnesty International documented. However, neither body provided sufficient detail to assess whether this disengagement was carried out responsibly, transparently, and as a last resort. Amnesty International’s research also indicates that both FIFA and the Supreme Committee should have been aware of the potential for abuse much earlier.
With the World Cup just months away, FIFA must do more to prevent abuses in the private security sector – or see the tournament further marred by abuse.— Stephen Cockburn
Neither FIFA nor the Supreme Committee conducted adequate due diligence before contracting the companies, and they compounded this failing by not identifying and addressing abuses in a timely manner. As a result, both bodies benefitted from these companies’ services while abuses were taking place, and have a responsibility to provide, or cooperate in providing, remedy for workers who experienced labour abuses while deployed at World Cup-related sites and events.
“With the World Cup just months away, FIFA must focus on doing more to prevent abuses in the inherently perilous private security sector, or see the tournament further marred by abuse,” said Stephen Cockburn.
“More broadly, FIFA must also use its leverage to pressure Qatar to better implement its reforms and enforce its laws. Time is fast running out – if better practices are not established now, abuses will continue long after fans have gone home.”
Amnesty International has not named the eight companies in its report, due to the risk of high-profile clients terminating their involvement at short notice. This could lead to job losses and worsen the situation for migrant workers. Amnesty International has, however, provided details to Qatar’s Ministry of Labour, as well as to FIFA and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy where relevant, and urges them to investigate further.
In response to Amnesty International’s allegations, Qatar’s Ministry of Labour acknowledged that “individual cases of wrongdoing need to be dealt with immediately”. However, it disputed that these signify “underlying issues with the robust system Qatar has introduced”, and stated that “[T]he prevalence of rule-breaking companies has and will continue to decline as enforcement measures take hold and voluntary compliance increases among employers.”
The Supreme Committee said that irrespective of regulations or monitoring systems, some contractors will always try to “bypass the system.” It went on to confirm its commitment to address and rectify breaches. FIFA provided background information but did not respond to Amnesty’s allegations.
*All workers’ names have been changed to protect them from reprisals.
Full responses from Qatar government, FIFA and the Supreme Committee can be accessed below: