This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Last week and the week before, I was in the Persian Gulf State of Qatar where you get to say most and first and biggest a lot when you describe it. Highest gross domestic product per capita, that's thanks to liquefied natural gas. Biggest carbon footprint per capita - why not, electricity is free. And by a variety of measures, in recent years, it is the fastest growing country in the world. Ten years ago, the population of Qatar was 660,000. This year it surpassed two million.

Here's the catch: Qataris themselves number only around 260,000. The rest, the more than 85 percent of the population are not citizens. As Professor Mehran Kamrava, an American scholar at Georgetown University's campus in Qatar, says: They are all migrant workers.

MEHRAN KAMRAVA: And there are gradations of migrant workers.

SIEGEL: You would count yourself as migrant worker?

KAMRAVA: Absolutely, yes. I happen to be a white-collar migrant worker, as a professor. But there are lots of people who work in construction industry. There are also domestic servants - people in the domestic sector. And also, then there are people in the services sector in the hospitality industry.

SIEGEL: Not to mention the civil service, even the judiciary, a lot of the judges are from Egypt and Sudan.

Qatar's system of hiring migrant labor - and it's actually a system used elsewhere in the Gulf region - has come under fire this year. Here's the harshest judgment you'll hear. It's from Sharan Burrow of the International Trade Union Confederation.

SHARAN BURROW: Qatar is a slave state.

SIEGEL: And when Burrow says that, she is speaking of the Kafala system or sponsorship system. Foreign workers must be sponsored by a Qatari to enter the country. They typically submit their passports to their employers, they have no freedom to change jobs or leave the country at will. They need an exit permit to get out of Qatar, and that permit has to be approved by their employer.

Amnesty International criticized this system in October. And the Guardian newspaper published an expose about an alarmingly high rate of fatal, on-the-job accidents among construction workers from Nepal.


SIEGEL: The reason for the current wave of criticism is that Qatar's long-term building boom has gone into hyper-drive. In anticipation of the 2022 World Cup the country is building new infrastructure, including a subway. In the capital Doha, where most of the population lives, they crack the old joke that the national bird is the construction crane.


SIEGEL: Well, here are some of the people of who build Qatar, gathered in the hundreds if not thousands near a traffic circle in central Doha. These are men who construct and service Qatar's gleaming, LEED-certified buildings.


SIEGEL: In the Musherib neighborhood of Doha, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, this a Friday night gathering place. It's a day off for all the workers in this country and they gather here with essentially nothing to do. They're barred from the malls on their day off, and so it's a place to come and talk. They are from: Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, India, from all over. They've come here for the wages and without their families, without their wives. And they are the people who constitute the majority of the population of Qatar.


SIEGEL: I asked several men about their jobs, their earnings and especially their passports. A couple of them who work for Qatari government agencies said they hold their own passports. But most were recruited by labor contractors to work for private companies.

Molay from Nepal works in a jewelry store.

MOLAY: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He doesn't have his passport on him. But when he wants to go back, they give it back to him.

SIEGEL: They give it back to you. Who has your passport?

MOLAY: (Through Translator) The manager of the shop.

SIEGEL: Riaz, from India, mans the cash register at a small grocery.

When you work here, do you have your own passport?

RIAZ: (Through Translator) With a sponsor.

SIEGEL: Your sponsor has your passport. And if you wanted to leave tomorrow and go home, would you have to ask your sponsor?

RIAZ: (Through Translator) He has to ask his sponsor.

SIEGEL: Mohammad Farukhan is from Bangladesh.

Who has your passport?

MOHAMMAD FARUKHAN: Passport, my main passport (unintelligible) has. My company has.

SIEGEL: Your company has it.


SIEGEL: What I heard was what Amnesty International found when it interviewed workers here. They found 90 percent surrendered their passport, in effect their freedom of movement, to their employer.

Off a main street in Musherib, we entered a two-story walk up where the front door was off its hinges and garbage was strewn about the foot of the stairs. We walk up to the second floor of the building. There are four rooms here each of which houses, in this case, five workers. All over there are clotheslines with laundry hanging over them. A window outside of their room is simply a hole in the exterior wall. There's no glass in the window, no shade at all. Clothing is hanging everywhere. Shoes, which include sandals and work boots, are parked up the steps and under the various shelves.

Mohammed Tazil Islam lives here. He's a 45-year-old house painter from Bangladesh with a wife, two daughters and two sons back home. In his room, five bunk beds line the walls of 10-by-20 foot space. He and four other Bangladeshi migrants have a TV and a computer. Their shirts hang from the walls. It has the look of very provisional accommodations.

How long have you worked in Qatar?

MOHAMMED TAZIL ISLAM: (Foreign language spoken)

SIEGEL: Twenty years?

ISLAM: Twenty.

SIEGEL: How often do you go back to Bangladesh?

ISLAM: (Through Translator) Every two, two and a half years.

SIEGEL: The workers I asked typically said the send about half of what they make home. Mohammed Tazil Islam's says, for him, that could be 700 Qatari Rials - about $200 dollars.

But when your son who's 12 becomes, say, 20, would you want him to come to a place like Qatar and work here, and live the way you live?

ISLAM: (Through Translator) If God wants it, then he can come and work.

SIEGEL: But do you think it would be a good thing for one of your sons to work here in Qatar the way you have worked in Qatar?

ISLAM: (Through Translator) Whatever is in his fate is going to happen. But like, according to me, it's a good thing.

SIEGEL: Migrants like Mohammed Tazil Islam have come to Qatar for the pay and their horizons are carefully circumscribed by law and common practice. Stop working and you go home. Here's another restriction.


SIEGEL: This Pakistani restaurant caters to the migrant worker trade and it employs Pakistanis. But an enterprising migrant could not just start a business all on his own. He must have a Qatari owner, or the very least a partner who shares in the profits. So there's not much chance of striking it rich and there's no chance of putting down roots.

And let's say a migrant man married a Qatari woman. In that case, she would lose the ample benefits that Qatari couples get, including free land and interest free loans to build a house. And their children would not be citizens.

Beyond these common practices, there have been allegations of misleading contracts, pay withheld, salaries below what was promised, long working hours and - as reported by The Guardian - unsafe working conditions. When all this was publicized this past fall, Qatar commissioned a London law firm to study the problem and make recommendations, which aren't public yet.

Some of the burden of defending Qatar fell to Hassan Abdallah al-Thawadi, the chairman of the country's World Cup Committee.

HASSAN ABDALLAH AL-THAWADI: It's very, very, very important and crucial for the world to understand that the practices that have been documented or alleged in whatever reporting - or whatever - these practices are illegal under Qatari law. It's as simple as that.

SIEGEL: Is it illegal under Qatari law for a contractor to hold a passport of a worker?

AL-THAWADI: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: That's against the law?

AL-THAWADI: Absolutely, it is illegal.

SIEGEL: Amnesty found that was true of 90 percent of the people...

AL-THAWADI: The issue that you face - well, this is where it's got to be put in context. This is unacceptable to us. The situations that have been described are unacceptable to us as a nation, as people, as human beings. It's plain and simple. And also, in accordance with our laws, this is unacceptable. Now, the question or the issue is - in terms of enforcement. And there is an issue with enforcement. And I think the Ministry of Labor itself has identified that.

SIEGEL: Al-Thawadi says more inspectors will be hired to enforce the law.

Some ex-pats I asked about the letter of Qatari law and its implementation in practice were cynical. As one American put it: There are traffic laws here, you've seen how people drive.

Apologists for the Kafala system pointed out that there is no system of credit for workers in Qatar. Employers are legally responsible for the debts of workers they sponsor. The abuse of the Kafala system was evident when a French soccer player who had signed with a local Qatari team got into a contract dispute with the owner, his sponsor.

SIEGEL: He was blocked from leaving the country until this fall when public pressure ended his 19-month long involuntary stay. The fact that he was a soccer player compounded the embarrassment for World Cup chair Hassan al-Thawadi. Is there some writing on the wall here that represents the change in the way that (unintelligible)?

HASSAN AL-THAWADI: Oh, absolutely. The current sponsorship law is being reviewed in front of the council of ministers. They're taking a look at it right now in terms of how to review it and how to strengthen the employment contract and kind of, to a certain extent, reduce the need for that sponsorship system or the exit permit systems and the other institutions, they can offer the support system to gradually move away from the Kafala system is also being looked at.

SIEGEL: Qataris are proud to say that the World Cup will bring attention to the Gulf. So far, it's brought attention to a very unattractive Gulf institution and it may yet bring reform. At this point, one might well ask, what do Qatari citizens say about this? How do they vote on an issue like immigrant labor? And the answer is they don't. It's a monarchy. Stable, popular and absolute.

Tomorrow, can Qatar rush toward the future economically and take so few steps toward democracy?

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