Natasha Iskander is professor of Urban Planning and Public Service at New York University. She is the author of Does Skill Make Us Human?: Migrant Workers in 21st-Century Qatar and Beyond (Princeton University Press, 2021) and Creative State: Forty Years of Migration and Development Policy in Morocco and Mexico (Cornell University Press, 2010). Arang Keshavarzian, associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, spoke to Iskander in July 2022 about the politics of “unskilled” labor behind the World Cup in Qatar.
Arang Keshavarzian: Your book Does Skill Make Us Human? forces the reader to contemplate a tension and discrepancy. On the one hand, the stadiums and some of the infrastructure necessary to host the 2022 World Cup in Qatar are some of the technologically most cutting edge and sophisticated feats of engineering. On the other hand, the people who have labored and built them are defined as “unskilled” and come with little or no experience either working in the Gulf region or on such massive construction sites. Why is it important to grapple with this tension to understand the politics of labor in Qatar and beyond?
Natasha Iskander: I am not sure I would call it a tension. I think it’s much more instrumental than that, in Qatar and elsewhere. The description of migrant workers as unskilled, irrespective of their actual ability, is absolutely core to the politics that dehumanizes them, deprives them of their freedom and denies them their bodily autonomy. These politics are the mechanism by which migrant workers are stripped of their personhood.
But the reason the politics of skill appear as a tension—as the discrepancy you describe, for example, between pathbreaking architecture and an unskilled workforce—is that skill masquerades as a technical issue. While there has been substantial scholarship highlighting bias in the measurement of skill, by gender or race or other social categories, the notion of skill itself (defined as competence and expertise) passes as a concept that is politically neutral.
In fact, in embarking on this project, I didn’t set out to grapple with skill and its politics. Instead, I wanted to understand how the politics of labor were different in a place that was the opposite of the typical migration story. Much of the scholarship on migrant labor looks at settings where immigrants or migrants are only a small fraction of the population and labor force. They are thus defined as an exceptional political case against a backdrop where the norm is full citizenship, with all the rights that entails. In Qatar, as has been the case for half a century, close to 95 percent of all workers are migrants. The rights, the belonging and the individual agency associated with citizenship are only afforded to the tiny minority of the population that are Qatari nationals. After Qatar won the World Cup hosting rights in 2010—amid a hurricane of whispers about kickbacks and bribes—migrant laborers’ working conditions began to receive an unprecedented level of scrutiny for a country in a region largely overlooked in migration scholarship and policy circles. Human rights and labor organizations began documenting labor abuses faced by migrant construction workers, which ranged from wage theft to abysmal living conditions in labor camps to injury and death. I wanted to understand how these exploitative patterns grew out of the fact that the political status of almost the entire population was co-equal with—and confined to—their economic function as workers.
These questions set off a six-year exploration, with research in five countries and eight languages. No matter which direction I turned, which research path I followed, my findings kept drawing me to the question of skill and its politics. These were so pronounced in Qatar that they bled into international press coverage of the country’s architectural reinvention. The images that ran in the media toggled between photos of futuristic and hyper-designed stadiums and photos of migrant workers, most in nondescript construction overalls, many with their faces covered, anonymous, racialized, looking wretched and somewhat flippantly described as unskilled. In the breach between those two types of images was an untold story. To build those stadiums, but also Qatar’s luxury developments, its new smart city, artificial islands, museums, cultural centers and new and expanded liquid natural gas extraction and processing centers, workers had to use the most advanced construction techniques anywhere in the world.
The workers who built those structures were recruited from all over the Global South—South Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa—and as you note, almost all arrived without relevant construction experience. To bridge this gap, companies turned their construction sites into vast and accelerated training systems. Companies organized their entire workflows to promote learning. All building practices, absolutely every single task, doubled as on-the-job training. These processes were intensively managed. Companies measured the progress of their workers in acquiring new skill very closely, sometimes several times a day, tracking workers’ productivity gains down to the fraction of an hour. This training was only effective because workers were heroic in their approach to learning. They tackled new and difficult tasks with dedication, commitment and even bravery. They developed informal teaching and mentoring practices to undergird the formal training systems on site. These were so intensive and intimate that workers came to regard each other as family through the learning process, cultivating a skill-based kinship system where more experienced workers were called “uncle” or “big brother” teaching their “sons” and “little brothers.”
And yet, despite the industry’s intensive investment in training and its complete dependence on the advanced skill that workers developed, employers and managers I spoke with routinely and uniformly described their workers as “unskilled,” “unproductive” or sometimes just “bodies.” Very quickly, it became clear to me that they were using the term “unskilled” to refer to something other than skill. They were not describing ability—or lack thereof—but instead were shunting their workers into a subordinate political category, divesting workers of their political personhood and redefining them as labor inputs that were disposable and readily replaceable.
Labeling someone as unskilled is essentially a denial of their capacity to learn. Learning is fundamentally an act of freedom, one that cannot be compelled. It is a deeply intimate process that requires imagination, volition, desire, aspiration. And because learning depends on teaching, it also needs the cultivation of trust, social connection and empathy between teacher and student. In labeling workers as unskilled, employers and managers were also denying that workers had the capacity to access those registers of human experience that learning requires. The jump to dehumanizing workers was very small.
The label unskilled also has political significance beyond the worksite. Unskilled workers have been banned, as a matter of policy, from most parts of Doha and its new satellites, confined to labor camps in the desert. They are subject to intensive surveillance and police controls. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, being labeled unskilled became a matter of life and death. The Qatari government drew a cordon sanitaire around the tracts in the desert where workers are housed and prohibited them, with police force, from crossing it to receive medical care or to purchase food.
While these consequences of skill politics may seem acute, they are dissimilar only in degree from the effects that we see in other economies. Workers described as unskilled have their freedom denied, their bodies controlled, their desires and ambitions for dignity suppressed—whether in an Amazon fulfillment center, a meatpacking plant or an immigrant detention facility.
Arang: Your research uncovers a host of tactics and methods adopted by laborers to negotiate and challenge their employers. How do these forms of resistance and disobedience directly evoke and deploy “skill” as well as the various spaces and practices set up by management to control them?
Natasha: Worker organizing and labor protests are illegal in Qatar. They can result in imprisonment and deportation. Still, wildcat, spontaneous strikes were very common (as well as in other Arab Gulf states). Every single site I was on saw a strike at one point or another. Employers tolerated these strikes so long as they hewed to a very specific script: they had to be short, a day or two; workers had to stay in their labor camps; no protests or challenges were tolerated on the construction site (as one supervisor explained, “[worker defiance] is like a spark that can set the whole place on fire”), and they had to be limited to one nationality. If protests stayed within these parameters, the health and safety staff charged with managing them gave them “a day to blow off steam and get their heads back on right,” as one of them described it to me. Any protest that deviated from these rules resulted in immediate deportation. Especially threatening to managers were protests organized across nationality because it meant that workers were no longer “blowing off steam” as Bangladeshis or Nepalis or Egyptians, but rather that they were organizing as workers, developing solidarity across nationality and based on a class consciousness. As I document in the book, any protest that broke with management’s script did not and could not exist because as soon as it coalesced, it was quashed by the expulsion of protestors from the country.
To be sure, workers’ use of skill as a form of resistance was not unalloyed. Workers’ invocation of their expertise faced skepticism and hostility from management. Their wages never matched their contribution and the benefits of the teaching and learning flowed to management. Nevertheless, skill-based resistance was powerful because workers used it to express a form of personhood denied by the label of unskilled.
Arang: The past decade has seen a proliferation of news articles about labor conditions and abuses in the Middle East. The term kafala system, the prevailing guest worker program in the Gulf, is now known to many around the world. How has Qatar responded to this unwanted coverage? To what extent have they adopted reforms and addressed demands made by labor organizations and laborers themselves?
Natasha: The kafala system is nothing more than the legal framework governing guest workers in the Gulf. Although the system is often represented as a cultural or Islamic brand of jurisprudence, it shares basic features with the global governance systems to regulate temporary migrant workers, including systems in the United States and Europe. Among the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, each one has implemented a slightly different version of the kafala system. When Qatar was awarded the World Cup hosting rights in 2010, its iteration was the most restrictive in the Middle East. As in many neighboring countries, workers were legally bound to their employer and prohibited from changing jobs. But Qatar also made it illegal for workers to withhold their labor for any reason. They could not quit under any circumstances, even in response to abuse or wage theft. Workers were in Qatar at the pleasure of their employer, and although they could be deported for any reason, without notice, they needed their employer’s permission to leave the country and had to show an exit visa at passport control to depart. Qatar’s legal system gave employers control over their workers’ future even after the employment relationship was terminated. Workers were not permitted to return to Qatar to fill a new job without their prior employer’s assent. Employers generally withheld this permission because, as they explained to me, they were leery of their competitors benefiting from the training investments they had made. Taken together, these restrictions amounted to a formal system of bonded labor, backed often quite ruthlessly by Qatar’s security services, which even issued an app allowing employers to notify the Ministry of the Interior, with the swipe of a finger, that their worker had absconded.
Human rights organizations, labor organizations and the international press were correct to call this system out as a form of modern slavery, and the catalogue of labor abuses they documented was devastating to Qatar’s international reputation and to its strategy of sports diplomacy. Qatar invested heavily to expand its natural gas production, and the World Cup was part of its push to develop the soft power to manage the geopolitical implications of being one of the leading global suppliers of natural gas. Qatar initially treated labor violations as a public relations problem that it could resolve without changing its laws. At its most cloying, the damage control effort featured an interview with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, on CNN in 2014, where he confessed that he was “personally hurt by the situation.”
But that same year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) registered a formal complaint identifying Qatar as abetting forced labor. The Qatari government found itself compelled to respond to avoid the fallout of the formal sanction the ILO threatened to issue. With technical assistance from the UN agency, the Qatari government instituted a variety of reforms to its labor laws. These included an electronic payment system to prevent wage theft, permission to terminate employment and leave the country at will, a minimum wage (now about $250) and some ability to change jobs. These reforms look good on paper and satisfied the ILO, which marked the complaint against Qatar resolved in 2017. They have also done wonders for Qatar’s public image. The international press has run headline after headline, since as early as 2015, proclaiming that Qatar abolished the kafala system, and previously staunch worker advocates (most notably the International Trade Union Confederation) have gone from excoriating Qatar for its labor violations to celebrating the regime for its enlightened changes.
In practice, however, the reforms have done little to ameliorate the conditions of workers and to curb labor abuses. Not only has enforcement been scandalously lax, implementation of the reforms has reproduced the same administrative logic and power structures woven into the earlier version of the kafala system. To access the new labor rights specified in the reforms, such as the right to change jobs, workers still need their employer’s consent along with the registered approval of the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor and Social Affairs. These constraints bind workers to their employers, but now as a matter of bureaucratic procedure rather than formal law. Additionally, the array of policies and practices that surrounded the earlier kafala system remains in place. Workers are still banned from residing and even circulating in most areas of the cities they built. They remain subject to summary deportation and are pursued for absconding and are still prohibited from protesting or even voicing concerns about their working conditions on social media.
It is important to note that all foreign workers regardless of occupation, class or nationality are regulated by the same legal framework, whether the earlier kafala system or the reformed administrative management of labor. A British architect in an executive suite is governed by the same basic framework as a Nepali street sweeper. But it is the workers who are classified as unskilled who suffer the most exploitative consequences of this system. They are still forced to work overtime, still have their wages stolen, are still dying from work-related injuries. The letter of the law may have been rewritten, but its spirit, articulated in Qatar through skill politics, remains unchanged and very much in force.
Arang: Qatar’s ability to win the bid to host the World Cup as well as its ability to quickly construct the massive infrastructure necessary to host it has depended on its revenues from the export of fossil fuels. Nonetheless, Qatar claimed that this would be a “carbon neutral” World Cup. To what extent has the World Cup abided by this aspiration?
Natasha: From the moment Qatar entered its bid to host the soccer tournament, it has marketed its World Cup as the world’s first “carbon neutral” global games, but in fact, they are more accurately described as the first—but certainly not the last—”climate damage” games. It is not an overstatement to say that climate damage has been core to the World Cup’s business model. Hydrocarbon revenues have bankrolled the games. Construction of the stadiums and infrastructure for the games has involved significant carbon emissions, and heavily polluting match-day shuttle flights from cities in neighboring countries will transport spectators into Qatar because there is a shortage of local hotels. In addition, the stadiums themselves have fallen far short of their claims of being climate neutral, claims based on flimsy carbon offset schemes and some creative accounting.
But the tournament’s climate damage has fallen hardest on migrant workers, bearing down on their bodies and on their communities. And here again, the politics of skill come into play. The political representation of workers as unskilled has made them the target of the worst climate effects of the games. Let me point out two ways the politics of skill has amplified climate change pressures.
Not only are employers exposing workers to the effects of climate damage in Qatar, but I also discovered that they are developing labor recruitment strategies that enable them to capitalize on exposure to climate damage around the world. In their search for workers, they are seeking out once relatively prosperous places that have been wiped out by typhoons, shriveled by drought or flooded by sea level rise. Slow and fast-moving climate disasters have made those communities newly poor and turned migration into a necessary strategy for economic survival for Bangladeshis, Nepalis and many others. Qatari companies look for recruits in these places because people have benefited from the investments in education, nutrition and health that their communities made in better days. As a result, the migrants who recruiters find there have what employers call the “absorptive capacity” to become highly skilled. They have the foundations necessary for learning, but their poverty means that employers can classify them, permanently, as “unskilled.”
Qatari companies are actively restructuring recruitment networks in countries of origin to take advantage of the business opportunity that climate damage offers them. In this way, they are creating a closed loop of climate damage. Bankrolled by revenues from Qatar’s hydrocarbon production, they recruit migrants from communities that fossil fuel use has helped damage for low-wage work where they will be exposed to the extreme dangers of global warming. Qatar offers a stark view of the ways that climate damage and worker exploitation compound one another and points to how the politics of labor—in this case, the politics of skill—is shaping people’s experience of climate change and climate damage. The 2022 World Cup is not carbon neutral. Instead, these games reveal how profoundly carbon emissions and climate change are already defining the future of work, livelihoods and dignity.