Opinion | The world needs to protect migrant workers

By Kartik Kannan, Staff Columnist

When the FIFA Executive Committee voted to award the hosting rights of the 2022 FIFA World Cup to Qatar, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad al-Thani promised that his nation would “make [FIFA] proud.” However, Qatar’s preparations for the tournament have come at the cost of thousands of lives.

Reports out of Qatar have indicated that since 2010, over 6,500 migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent alone have lost their lives while participating in the nation’s World Cup building program. The number of deaths rises even higher when workers from other nations, namely the Philippines and Kenya, are considered as well.

Yet the predicament of migrant workers is not confined to those working in Qatar. There are approximately 164 million migrant workers across the world, many of whom work in farming and construction, and many are subjected to similar conditions to those experienced by workers in Qatar. With the migrant worker population making up about 5% of the global working-age population, there is an increasing urgency for the world’s pre-eminent powers to enhance protections for migrant workers in order to prevent their plight from becoming a global humanitarian crisis.

Often, migrant workers endure harsh conditions because they are desperate to provide for their families and often have no other employment options. Often, poor socioeconomic conditions in their home regions force migrant workers to move to other areas in order to obtain work. In turn, these workers are often subjected to dangerous and unsanitary working conditions, virtually no workers’ benefits, coercion from their employers and culture shock.

While it is easy to think that these types of conditions would be seen primarily in non-Western countries, such as what was seen in Qatar, the reality is that migrant workers are mistreated across the world. In the United States, for example, many migrant workers in the country under special visas have been subjected to severe human rights abuses from their employers. And in Great Britain, migrant workers face the threat of exploitation and abuse in order to fill labor shortages.

Theoretically, the onus should be on world leaders to ensure that the rights of migrant workers within their nations are protected from mistreatment and abuse on the part of their employers. Unfortunately, migrant workers face a multitude of obstacles that prevent them from experiencing the same protections as normal workers. The primary obstacle comes in the form of immigration laws. Since the majority of migrant workers are immigrants, employers use the threat of deportation to prevent workers from reporting abuses or leaving their positions. This is seen in the United States, where workers under special visas can lose employer sponsorship if they attempt to change employers, which in turn subjects them to deportation. In nations like the United Arab Emirates, employers actually seize workers’ passports in order to prevent them from leaving the country.

Combating these problems does not require complex fixes — in fact, many of the needed changes require simple adjustments to existing laws. As the Clean Clothes Campaign — an organization formed to advocate for workers’ rights worldwide — has shown, overcoming the obstacle immigration laws pose to migrant workers comes down to prioritizing employment laws over immigration policy. Leaders could easily accomplish this through the re-working of existing visa laws and the stronger enforcement of anti-abuse and workers’ rights laws in countries around the world.

Currently, though, world governments are hesitant to put these types of legislations into place because it is not necessarily beneficial for them to do so. Many governments rely on migrant workers to fill labor shortfalls in their economies and develop off of the backs of migrants’ work — for example, the United Kingdom attempted to use migrant workers to fill shortages in the farming, construction and cleaning sectors.

Though the population of migrant workers has been decreasing since 2015, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused increases in both global unemployment and labor shortfalls. These conditions leave a multitude of employment opportunities for migrant workers. Knowing this, improving the working conditions of migrant workers worldwide must become a priority for governments across the world.

In order to bring about change in the United States, the general public needs to reach out to their Congressional representatives and call for the reworking of immigration laws pertaining to migrant workers coming and working in the country. Leaders must change visa laws to ensure migrant workers are not held hostage by their employers. Outside of the United States, the best way to aid migrant workers is through boycotts and sanctions. We must call on our representatives to pass sanctions on nations that repeatedly abuse the rights of migrant workers, and individually, we can boycott products and venues that were created by the exploitation of migrant workers. 

Our global society is always modernizing and finding ways to become more efficient, but it cannot and should not come at the expense of the lives of migrant workers. Thousands of migrant workers have died for our world to keep moving forward — by protecting them now, we can begin to repay them for the sacrifices they have made.

Kartik Kannan is a first-year studying biological sciences. You can contact Kartik at [email protected].