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Qatar’s luxury hotels fall well short of protecting rights of migrant workers

On July 25, 2021


As the excitement of the Copa America and the UEFA Euros dies down, the past month has seen a PR push from the Qatar Government, who will host next year’s FIFA World Cup 2022. The government has been keen to stress their progress in protecting workers’ rights in the decade since being awarded the rights to host the tournament and have pushed back against criticism of working conditions, particularly for the hundreds of thousands of construction sector workers.

Thousands more workers will be recruited into Qatar’s hospitality, transport and tourism sectors, employed to bring football fans, national teams and sponsors a World Cup experience they will never forget. Qatar recently announced 100 new hotels to meet the demands of the World Cup. Hotel workers will play a key part in that experience and the sector warrants the same scrutiny as that on the plight of Qatar’s construction workers.

But sixteen months to the World Cup 2022, the biggest, most profitable hotel brands in the world are failing to recognise their responsibility to prevent, mitigate and remedy labour rights abuses against migrant workers in their hotels. That was the conclusion following our survey of 19 multinational, household-name brands to find out how they are ensuring migrant workers in their Qatar hotels can enjoy their labour rights in full. Only 11 brands responded to the survey, with the eight non-responders including US hospitality giants Best Western and Four Seasons, and UK-headquartered Millennium and Copthorne.

We asked hotels about their recruitment practices, due diligence, as well as workers’ job mobility, freedom of movement, living conditions and more – and then ranked them based on their answers. The results should ring alarm bells for anyone headed to Doha in November 2022. While IHG Hotels & Resorts was the only brand to score a “three star” rating (out of five), overall, no brand scored over 50% in the survey. Most achieved only two stars, while luxury hotel groups Hyatt and Louvre scored only one star each. While efforts by one or two brands are welcome, alarmingly many of the deficits in protections were areas previously highlighted in our 2019 survey

This means in the two years since our first survey, the industry has not adequately stepped up to address those risks. Hotel workers, interviewed by Equidem, Center for Migrant Advocacy and Barun Ghimire, continue to experience abuse, many of which are indicators of forced labour as defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Workers spoke about violations of employment contract, paying thousands of dollars in recruitment fees, nationality-based discrimination in pay and, most worryingly, being unable to change jobs, despite the landmark labour reform last year abolishing the no-objection certificate (NOC) requirement.

This last is especially concerning. Brands assured us the vast majority of workers who applied to change jobs had done so, yet workers cited numerous practical barriers to this. Some were deeply afraid to even put in a request for transfer in case their employer had them arrested and/or deported. Others believed they had to finish their contracts in order to change jobs – which is not the case under the new law – one must only serve their notice period. and local media have regularly raised the alarm over the past number of months over employers placing additional requirements on workers not required by law (such as resignation letters signed by the current employer). Two brands confirmed to the Resource Centre they require resignation letters from workers and two more referred to the now-abolished NOC, seemingly unaware that the laws have changed. In response to our findings, the government reaffirmed its commitment to labour rights, highlighting ongoing and multi-lingual awareness-raising efforts on laws – for both workers and employers – and avenues for justice. But for the workers experiencing first-hand that their employer’s power outweighs paper laws, it is simply not credible that Kafala has been abolished.

This level of abuse remains unsurprising when most brands continue to dodge their responsibilities towards migrant workers and fail to engage meaningfully with human rights. Most companies were not transparent on which local companies supply them with labour; only two were undertaking satisfactory human rights due diligence on business partners, and most were not even conducting risk assessments that would allow them to understand how their workforce could be exposed to exploitative practices. Fair recruitment has remained one of the most serious areas of risk since 2019, with eight of 18 workers interviewed reportedly paying fees, only two brands implementing a policy that was fully compliant with the Employer Pays Principle, only one brand describing due diligence on recruiters and only one brand disclosing the number of workers it found had paid recruitment fees since 2019. For a highly diversified sector, which recruits from a range of countries where labour migration protections may not be as strong as the predominant labour suppliers to the Gulf (such as India or the Philippines), the brands’ overall unsatisfactory engagement with recruitment risk was deeply disappointing.   

The lack of protections for subcontracted hotel workers, outsourced from security and cleaning companies, stood out in particular. These are subcontracted workers wearing brand uniforms alongside directly employed workers, yet their living and working experiences differed vastly.  Subcontracted workers were more likely to experience severe abuse, including delayed payment or withheld passports. However, several hotel brands were very ready to divest themselves of responsibility for this group, blaming their business model and telling us they lacked influence over property owners with whom they partner for oversight of suppliers. No brands proactively or systematically engaged with suppliers or subcontracted workers to understand their working conditions. Some even explicitly told us they could not be held liable for conditions of subcontracted workers, or that “whether [subcontractors] pay their employees or not does not concern” the brand.

The survey does not signal the step-change workers so urgently need from the industry. Unless pressure is brought to bear on the industry, hotels simply will not see the need to act to prevent abuse. With 16 months until kick-off, the fans, national teams and sponsors headed to Qatar in November 2022 can put hotels under pressure to be more transparent. Hotels have plenty of time to put in place robust mechanisms to protect workers from the worst forms of abuse – by ensuring they put workers at the centre of due diligence and monitoring processes, training all hotel management staff on workers’ rights under the law so that no one is trapped in a job, and working collaboratively as an industry to guarantee workers access to a fair recruitment process where they do not bear the cost of obtaining a job. If brands don’t act now, there is a real risk that the FIFA Qatar World Cup 2022 experience for fans and other visitors will be tainted by the continued abuse of workers.