In under a decade, Qatar will be firmly in the spotlight as football’s World Cup finals begin in the Gulf state. Already the scrutiny has started. Several reports from human-rights organisations allege that workers have been abused, had their passports confiscated and salaries denied. The most critical came from Amnesty International which, on Sunday, published a report detailing what it called routine abuse of migrant workers, and urging Qatar to better enforce labour regulations.
Such criticism is not unusual in the run-up to international events. Three years ago, there were such relentless attacks on hosts South Africa in the world press that Fifa called the media assault excessive.
Indeed, much of the language in the run-up to South Africa’s hosting describing the decision to stage the World Cup in Africa as a mistake and implying the event should be taken away and given to another country – was similar to that now directed at Qatar.
That does not, however, detract from the legitimate questions that were raised by human-rights groups. Qatar, in common with other Gulf states such as the UAE that rely on expatriate labour, has expressed its desire to improve working conditions for all expatriates.
Two years ago, when the UAE faced criticisms over the rights of labourers working on projects on Saadiyat Island, it reacted positively, upgrading protections for labourers and ensuring the new workers’ accommodation featured sufficient facilities such as libraries and cafeterias.
To its credit, Qatar has taken the criticisms equally seriously; it was discussed at the highest level last week when Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, met Qatar’s new ruler Sheikh Tamim.
This week, the country announced it would double the number of labour inspectors in the next six weeks. Moreover, it has proposed a task force especially for workers’ welfare, and will look into further legislation to cover any abuses. Such serious measures are the most mature way of handling legitimate concerns.
Criticism from international organisations is not always evenly distributed. More than one country has noted the tendency for human rights organisations and international media to thunder about the shortcomings of some countries, while whispering their criticisms of others. Nonetheless, criticism, when it is legitimate and proportionate, is welcome. Qatar and the UAE are expanding rapidly, faster than any equivalent nations in history, and on occasions, development moves faster than legislation. When it does, it is to the benefit of the country and its workers that the gap is closed quickly.