Why you should care
Because migrant workers finally have an advocate worthy of their wants and needs in a place that believes they deserve none of the above.
Defending the little guy is a stance old as time, but you wouldn’t think the glitzy world of professional soccer would need that kind of advocate. But for the people who work so that others can play in new stadiums and watch from secure bleachers, it’s an entirely different story. And it’s the story being told by migrant workers in Qatar who are helping the city prepare for the world’s largest sports competition in 2022.
Cue Azfar Khan, a Pakistani native living in an increasingly unstable Lebanon because he sees an even greater threat facing the regions’ migrant workers.
“Sorry about the bad connection. There has been an explosion in the neighborhood,” Khan says in a surprisingly relaxed tone over the phone.
When you do something like this, it’s not only about the job — it has to be personal.
— Azfar Khan
The senior migration specialist for the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Beirut, Khan monitors and advises Arab states on how to protect workers’ rights. He is talkative and cheerful, even in the face of bombs and sectarian violence.
“The security situation is pretty dire,” he says plainly.
If Khan doesn’t sound overly concerned about explosions, it’s because he’s focused on helping the countless immigrant workers who don’t make the headlines. As their champion, he is counseling the Qatar government on how to host the World Cup without violating any more international labor laws.
Working conditions in the region are “pathetic,” Khan says. He believes the kafala system — a traditional sponsorship scheme that binds each migrant worker to a single employer — is incompatible with modern-day labor because it puts workers in a very vulnerable situation.
Last year alone, 185 Nepalese workers — the single largest group of laborers in Qatar and also the lowest paid — died during the construction of the World Cup infrastructure. More than half, some as young as 16, died of heart attacks or workplace accidents, often after enduring 12-hour days and sharing unsanitary lodgings.
Surprisingly enough, Qatar has ratified most conventions on labor rights, which means all exploitative practices are technically illegal. But rules mean nothing if they’re not enforced.
People with a little bit of assistance can do a better job about improving their lives than paternalistic policymakers.
— Azfar Khan
“The problem is an extreme lack of political will,” says Khan. “For example, Qatar has signed the convention on the elimination of forced labor but still allows the practice of withdrawing workers’ passports, which easily leads to forced labor.”
The Qatari government thinks Khan’s concerns are exaggerated, insisting, according to the Emir, that the country is “on the right track” and “truly committed to treating all workers fairly.”
Yet Qatar refuses to sign one convention — the very one Khan considers most crucial: the freedom of assembly and association. “Without any organization to adequately represent their interests, no matter how much we discuss, we are going to have problems,” he says.
And if you thought it was just a regional issue, think again. This unwillingness to take action is not unique to the Gulf states. According to Khan, “Labor law doesn’t get much attention anywhere, whether it is in developing countries or in developed ones.”
Pushing countries to implement these laws without the momentum of political will is like pushing water uphill, but Khan perseveres in his quest with modesty and conviction.
“I know that what I can do will not be earth shattering, but at least it is a cog in the wheel,” he explains.
Khan is himself a former immigrant who moved to Canada with his mother and sister from his native Pakistan at age 14. Raised in a household partial to Sufi philosophy, he was instilled with a sense of social justice from an early age.
“We were told that we had a commitment to people, and I guess championing the underdog was implicitly part of this teaching,” he says.
While in Canada, Khan’s dreams of cricketing stardom turned to aspirations of fighting for social justice. He studied economics at McGill University, specializing in development economics before moving to the U.K. and completing his Ph.D. on the impact of international migration on rural Pakistan. In the 1970s and ’80s, Khan noticed how many Pakistanis moved to the Gulf countries to earn money to send home and became concerned about the trend’s long-term effects.
In 1995, Khan started working for the ILO, where he promotes legal and social protection for migrant workers — a dream endeavor, but far from easy. A crucial part of his task is raising awareness among international organizations as well as the governments he already counsels. He thinks institutions should do more to empower those they seek to protect and stop viewing the poor as just another statistic.
What we really need are good institutions that will protect the workers like the unions used to.
— Azfar Khan
Which explains why working face to face with people is Khan’s favorite part of the job. While running experimental community workshops in the region of Kochi, India, he realized “that people with a little bit of assistance can do a better job about improving their lives than paternalistic policymakers sitting in high offices can.” Grassroots work has become just as important to him as presenting reports in well-appointed meeting rooms.
The key to moving things in the right direction, he asserts, is public support — and Khan isn’t shy about using the media to get politicians’ attention. In Ukraine in 2003, for example, he surveyed how the restructuring of enterprises promoted by liberal policies was affecting workers’ security. The morning after he shared his results with the press, the issue was discussed in parliament, and his recommendations were adopted by the government.
Information is useful, Khan notes, but taking action is a whole other matter. “So what we really need are good institutions that will protect the workers like the unions used to,” he adds.
Unfortunately Khan’s work is as slow going as it is important, but he’s more than willing to put in the effort. Any moves toward social justice are worthwhile, he says, “regardless of the size.”
Khan’s genuine love of people seems to be the secret behind his boundless enthusiasm. After 20 years of working for the ILO, he will soon be forced to retire, but he plans to keep fighting for the proverbial little guy.
“When you do something like this, it’s not only about the job — it has to be personal. Do you believe in it or don’t you believe in it?” he asks rhetorically.
Spend a minute with Khan, and you too will believe.