Why Were These Immigrant Workers Made To Run A Marathon, Shoeless, In Qatar?

Posted on April 15, 2015 in GlobeScope

By Bhanvi Satija:

The Guinness World Record for the Largest Marathon with maximum participation in the world is held by the United Stated of America.

While this fact, like many other records, plays only a menial role in our lives, something that only comes up during a quiz and is rarely a topic of discussion, it became an issue of ‘national pride’ for the Qatar Government.


On 27th March 2015, while all of us made plans for a long weekend, Qatar was busy attempting to break a world record – by conducting the Qatar Mega Marathon. The marathon was originally scheduled on Qatar’s National Sports Day i.e. 10th of February. “Acknowledging its great importance, the wise Government has allocated a National Sports Day to shed the lights on the importance of the regular exercising,” the marathon’s official page states. However, the marathon actually took place on March 27th and did not start till 2 PM when it was originally scheduled to start an hour earlier.

It could only gather participation of about 33,000 people and failed to achieve its target of 50,000 people, consequently failing to break the record. What is to be questioned here is how the marathon was conducted and who were these 33,000 people who participated? In fact, observers also claim that the actual number of people who turned up was much lowere than what the organisers are claiming.

What Happened in the Mega Marathon:

As reported by several websites including thedailybeast.com, dohanews.co, thepostgame.com and arabianbusiness.com, officials in Doha, Qatar, called in several immigrant workers and made them run in whatever attire they were wearing. Many workers ended up running in jeans and flip flops and were forced to stay if they wanted to leave – since it was important for them to cross the finish line for their participation to count. It’s important to note here, that many of these workers never even wanted to participate in the first place. It was a half marathon and participants were required to run along a 21 km route of the National Day Ceremonial Road near Izghawa in the northern part of Doha. The event took place during the hotter part of the day, when temperature in Doha was around 84 degrees. The marathon received a low participation from people and hence the labourers were bused in to participate, as there were observers from the Guinness World Records, who were witnessing the event.

After the event, the official Facebook page received a number of complaints from the participants, as reported by Doha News. The issues that came up included the chaotic organisation of the event, the participation by the labourers and also security issues as the road blocks along the path of the marathon were reportedly removed before the marathon ended.

If the organisers weren’t ready, then why was the event held in the first place?

The logic behind the conduction of the marathon is shocking. The race’s official website branded the marathon as a protest against global negative opinions toward Qatar, including a “decisive response to the campaign waged by the sector of envious haters on the success of Qatar to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and to their false allegations of persecution of workers and residents in our beloved country.”

After being declared the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar has received mostly negative responses. Many of those have come from the FIFA fraternity itself. Les Murray, a former ethics committee member of FIFA, recently told CNNThe only possible explanation for Qatar winning that World Cup bid, in my view, is because there was some funny business going on. I think FIFA made a big mistake in awarding Qatar the World Cup for many reasons. Among them is that it’s probably among the most morally corrupt regimes in the world, it treats its migrant workers like slaves, it has draconian medieval laws that are not in keeping with modern civilization.”

In fact, the question of how Qatar could have won the World Cup bid is something that refuses to go away from the news. And rightly so, the country’s human rights record is one of the worst in the world and many are of the opinion that this is the major reason why Qatar shouldn’t be given the right to host one of the world’s greatest sporting events.

Qatar clearly has played the right cards by organising this mega marathon in its defence, which has attracted more negative publicity on the issue. What could have possibly been a better defence argument for the country than its recent successes on holding events – like the Doha Five Km Colour Run held in February 2015. However, the state decided to take the negative responses more personally than they were expected to – resulting in the mistakes of this mega marathon.

The Real Problem:

“It’s not the most serious thing that’s going on, but it gets precisely to the nub of what’s problematic here,” said Nicholas McGeehan to The Daily Beast. McGeehan is a researcher working with the Human Rights Watch. He is referring to the treatment meted out to the immigrant workers in Qatar as being the crux of the problem. More specifically, he is talking about the Kafala System which is in practice in many gulf countries including Qatar.

The kafala system is a kind of a sponsorship system, used to monitor the construction and domestic migrant labourers in the country. The system requires every unskilled labourer to have an in-sponsor, a sponsor within the immigrated country, who is then responsible for the labourer’s visa and legal status – basically, everything an immigrant has. Now this sponsor is the employer of the labourer – which means the labourers officially become the slaves of their employer/sponsor under this system.

Till 2013, according to a report in Doha’s BQ magazine, foreign workers make up approximately 90 percent of Qatar’s population. Since the country’s win of the World Cup bid, many workers have naturally been engaged in the construction of the infrastructure required for the same, as stadiums including the Khalifa Stadium in Doha, are undergoing complete reconstruction. Such a scenario therefore, in a way encourages exploitation of the workers and evidently so. The Guardian, in a series of reports that it did in 2014 on the plight of these migrant workers declared that more than one migrant worker died every day while working on the World Cup stadium.

Clearly then, the raised eyebrows towards Qatar holding the 2022 world cup are justified. The country holds a bad record on how it treats its workers. The government of Qatar isn’t unaware of these problems in the country, and is definitely not unaware of the laws that it practices. However, the state’s stand on the kafala system has been purely diplomatic and it isn’t doing enough to protect its workers. As per Amnesty International’s Report on the issue “Despite making repeated promises to clean up its act ahead of the World Cup, the government of Qatar still appears to be dragging its feet over some of the most fundamental changes needed such as abolishing the exit permit and overhauling its abusive sponsorship system.”

The real problem therefore is the urgent need to reform the labour laws in the country. The kafala system is not compatible with the modern labour practices and directly contradicts the labour law. It puts too much power in the hands of the employer and restricts the mobility of the employee, in fact restricts all kinds of freedom of the employee. The international attention, which Qatar is getting due to the world cup is a good opportunity for human rights organisation to draw the world’s attention to this issue. McGeehan has described it as ‘double edged sword’, since with the spotlight, he fears that more and more workers have been subjected to rampant and severe exploitation.