Foreign Policy Blogs

Qatar’s Marathon Woes

Photo Credit: WBUR Boston's NPR News Station via Flickr

Photo Credit: WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station via Flickr

Forcing your country’s migrant workers to partake in a marathon probably isn’t the best way to show the international community you’re serious about labor reform. That’s a lesson that Qatar might have to learn the hard way.

Qatar, which has come under significant fire for its treatment of migrant workers, found its labor practices called into question yet again at the Qatar Mega Marathon on Friday, March 27. The race — which some officials claimed to have over 33,000 participants — reportedly featured thousands of migrant workers who were bused in by officials in an effort to break the Guinness World Record for largest marathon. (The current record holder is ING’s New York City Marathon, which had over 50,000 finishers in 2013 and 2014.)

Participants noted that the workers forced to run the race were often ill-equipped. Despite the mid-day heat — the start of the race was delayed until 2 PM — many wore jeans. Some ran in flip-flops or, worse, barefoot. One runner confirmed this report with Doha News, saying, “Others were forced to walk several kilometers before the organizers obviously realized they would not finish, and so they were loaded back into their busses and sent away.”

“I first thought all these people in jeans were race volunteers. They had bibs on but no running clothes,” Robin Adams, a marathon participant and sports anchor for Al Jazeera English, told Runner’s World. “[Then] I overheard another runner say they were bused in to help break the world record.”

Busing in migrant workers for a marathon in an attempt to break a world record is one of the weirdest ways the Gulf country has found to mess with its guest workers, but it’s hardly the last. Over the past year, the country has come under fire from both governments and human rights groups over its treatment of migrant workers, who account for roughly 90 percent of the country’s population. Migrant workers, who have been integral in the country’s preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, come to the Gulf state through a kafala, or sponsorship, system. Kafala requires workers to be have a kafeel, or sponsor, who may be either a local citizen or company. Critics note that the kafala system places too much power at the hands of employers by allowing to control the movements of an employee in and out of the country, or even to change jobs.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch found that despite promises from the Qatari government for labor reform, conditions for migrant workers — most of whom hailed from Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka —  had hardly improved. Today, migrant workers are still forced to pay exorbitant recruitment fees, receive compensation that is significantly lower than what they were initially promised, are not permitted to organize, and are hit with arbitrary wage deductions in exchange for basic goods and services. Fatalities among migrant workers are high and continue to rise. In fact, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has estimated an additional 4,000 workers will die before the first game of the 2022 World Cup if conditions for workers don’t change.

Maybe 2015 will be the year the Qatari government gets its act together and gives its migrant workers the fair treatment they deserve. Then again, considering that the country is literally runs its migrant laborers into the ground, that chance may be quite slim.



Hannah Gais

Hannah is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association, a nonresident fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and the managing editor of Her work has appeared in a number of national and international publications, including Al Jazeera America, U.S. News and World Report, First Things, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, Truthout, Business Insider and Foreign Policy in Focus.

Gais is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, where she focused on Eastern Christian Theology and European Studies. You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais

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