Space and Subversion: Precarious Labor and Migrant Worker Resistance in Qatar
Bogos, Kristina Renee
The state of Qatar in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is home to an estimated 2.1 million foreigners. All guest workers in the country, from high-waged “expatriates” to low-income migrant workers, are governed by a sponsorship system known as kafala. Under the system, management of foreigners is delegated to the citizenry, whereby a worker’s visa and residency permits are tethered to his/her kafeel, or sponsor. At the heart of the system is an asymmetric power relationship between the kafeel and the sponsored worker. Due to the low cost of importing labor and the nature of their work, Asian and African migrant workers employed in the construction, domestic, and service sectors are disproportionately affected by the system and rendered extremely vulnerable to abusive practices. As a result, workers are subject to passport confiscation and the withholding of wages, and cannot change and/or leave jobs, or leave the country, without obtaining employer permission. This asymmetric power relationship, one that affords the sponsor considerable power and control, undergirds the maltreatment that low-wage beneficiaries of the system incur throughout their employment.This study is significant in two respects. First, this ethnographic study adds to the existing literature by presenting additional documentation of the oppressive work and living conditions that Qatar’s labor regime exacts low-waged migrants to endure. Second, this research argues that the Qatari state’s autocratic power, which it has delegated to sponsors through the kafala system, is part and parcel to neoliberalism in Qatar. I argue that the Qatari state’s neoliberal urban governmentality, or the demarcation and division of Doha and its surrounding municipalities by socioeconomic class, concentrates Qataris and the global elite around centers of capitalist development and shuttles the low-waged migrant class to the city’s outskirts. This state-imposed urban planning strategy, or urban governmentality, has produced spatial zones of exception, namely the Industrial Area and other peripheral zones populated with labor camps. In the absence of fundamental labor rights that afford workers autonomous means to seek recourse for abuse, such as the right to form and join a trade union and strike, these zones emerge as spaces where low-waged migrant workers foster black market and informal economic activity as a means of politicization and resistance.
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