Natasha Iskander, Does Skill Make Us Human?: Migrant Workers in 21st-Century Qatar and Beyond (Princeton University Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Natasha Iskander (NI): In 2010, Qatar, somewhat improbably, won the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup for soccer, and almost immediately began to build stadia and infrastructure for the games, channeling hundreds of billions of dollars to reinvent itself as a global destination for sports and culture. All of a sudden, a country in a region largely overlooked in migration scholarship began to receive unprecedented scrutiny for the conditions under which migrants worked. Human rights and labor organizations began documenting an array of labor abuses faced by migrant construction workers, from wage theft to abysmal living conditions in labor camps to injury and death. The international press ran headlines about “world cup slaves.” Almost all of these featured an image of a construction worker in blue overalls, looking wretched, oppressed, anonymous, generically brown, and racialized.
I became intensely curious about that construction worker’s experience. What was the personal story behind that flat and erasing image? What was it like for him and so many others like him to work in Qatar—a place that is the photonegative of the typical migration story. In most settings, immigrants or migrants are only a small fraction of the population and labor force. In Qatar, almost everyone—ninety percent of residents—is from somewhere else. Qatar is the most cosmopolitan country on earth, and the construction industry is even more so. Out of close to a million people working in construction, only a couple of thousand are Qatari. What was it like to work, to dream, to forge friendships, to plan a future in a place where everyone was provisional? A place where everyone’s political rights were tied to their function as workers? How did political power bear down on you and what were the possibilities for solidarity and resistance?
I also found the reasons that were being given for the exploitative conditions in Qatar to be deeply unsatisfactory, even unsettling. Most reports on Qatar attributed the oppression of workers to the kafala system—essentially a system of bonded labor that at the time prevented workers from quitting or otherwise withholding labor regardless of the conditions they faced. What unnerved me was the sometimes subtle but definitely present Orientalist overlay onto these descriptions—an intimation that somehow the exploitation and bondage of workers was a feature of Arab culture. I wanted to understand how working conditions in Qatar were created—was it the legal system? The organization of production in the industry? Was it the influence of the huge multinational companies that were involved in construction? The fact that absolutely all the workers in the industry were migrants? That they were all bound by the kafala system—including managing executives, engineers, architects?
These questions set of a six-year exploration, with research in five countries and in eight languages. I spent hundreds of hours on construction sites. I visited labor camps. I interviewed workers, managers, architects, and government officials. I went to villages and towns workers were from in India, Nepal, and the Philippines. I sat with their families in their homes. And I followed the recruiters who sent workers to Qatar.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NI: The main argument of my book is that skill is deeply political and that it was the political use of skill—and not the kafala system—that produced the kinds of labor violations that were so carefully documented by human rights organizations and international press. I did not expect to home in on skill, but I found that in Qatar the distinction between skilled and unskilled shaped absolutely all aspects of social and economic life. Doha, for example, is segregated by skill as a matter of policy: workers described as unskilled are prohibited from living in and circulating in most of the city—the city that they in fact built—and are relegated instead to labor camps in the surrounding desert.
The insidiousness of skill as a political language, in Qatar but in many other contexts as well, is that skill does not seem political. It passes as a neutral term, as a straightforward measure of ability, experience, education, or training. There has been a fair amount of push-back against this view of skill, with scholars pointing out how its measurement and recognition is refracted through race and gender and other markers of social difference.
My argument starts with this critique but goes further. In Qatar, skill was used as a political category that was completely untethered from ability. Skill was not about skill—whether you were skilled or unskilled or somewhere in between had nothing to do with whether you were categorized as unskilled. The category was and is fundamentally about political personhood, and who had the right to its full expression. Even though all migrants in Qatar, with very few exceptions, are regulated by the same legal system and visa category, those categorized as skilled had and still have access to different rights than those described as unskilled: different rights to freedom and mobility, different rights to autonomy and dignity, different rights to creativity and desire.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
NI: A thread that runs through all of my work—from my work on Sans-Papiers activism in France, through my first book, Creative State: Forty Years of Migration and Development Policy in Morocco and Mexico (Cornell UP, 2010), to my research on tacit skill transformation among Latinx construction workers in the United States—is a preoccupation with processes of knowledge generation, creativity, and imagination in places where they are overlooked, minimized, or completely denied. While my previous work sought to highlight those processes, Does Skill Make Us Human? focuses instead on how they are negated and how that negation is used to dehumanize workers and im/migrants.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NI: I hope that anyone who admires any of the futuristic and amazing stadia, cultural centers, transportation systems, artificial islands, and urban development that will surely flash across their screen as they watch coverage of the World Cup will pick up the book to learn more about the workers who build these structures—their dedication, their bravery, and their full humanity.
I also hope that the book serves as a catalyst for scholars and analysts who worry about labor, migration, and political rights to interrogate—forcefully—the use of skill and to examine how the category of skill becomes a tool in labor politics, border enforcement, racial stratification, and the production of inequity. The politics of skill played out forcefully in Qatar, but although they are sometimes more muddled in other contexts and in other places, their consequences are no less significant and lasting.
J: In your book you address how the politics of skill interact with climate change pressures. Could you say more about that?
NI: Qatar offers us a window into the ways that skill politics refract climate change effects in two ways. First, Qatar is hot, and is one of the fastest warming places on the planet. Workers work in extreme temperatures and suffer high rates of injury and death as a result of the heat they face. Heat attacks the neurocognitive system, and the first symptoms of heat stress are confusion, disorientation, and the loss of ability to move your body. For a scaffolder hanging twenty stories up in the air, or a cladder craning a huge panel of glass and aluminum against the sheer of desert winds, this loss of ability can very easily lead to injury and death. The description of workers as unskilled make it very easy to blame them for the injuries they suffer—it is not the heat and its damage to their cognition, it is that as unskilled workers, they did not have the desire or the capacity to use their skill to protect themselves.
Second, one of the things that most surprised me was that employers in Qatar are turning to places around the world damaged by climate change to recruit workers. They are seeking the places wiped out by typhoons, the places shriveled by drought, or flooded by sea level rise, because in these places, climate change pressures turned relatively well-off people into the newly poor and made them available to migrate. They viewed these people as good recruits because they had benefited from long-term investments in education, nutrition, and health, but were now willing to accept lower wages than they would have before. These were migrants who had the “absorptive capacity” to become highly skilled, but could be classified, pretty much permanently, as “unskilled.”
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NI: My research in Qatar has made me increasingly interested in how the politics of skill magnify the inequities produced by climate change. I am now starting a project on climate change and the future of work that explores this interplay. I am focusing on the construction industry in different places around the world because, in process and product, construction contributes forty percent of all global emissions, and the politics of skill shape the industry’s working conditions and climate impacts in ways that are often surprising and even counterintuitive. Rather than starting with politics, institutions, and narratives, as my previous projects have, this time around I am starting with the material—quite literally. The project takes concrete as its object of study, the most used substance on the planet after water, and asks what its use reveals about the skill politics of climate change.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-4)
The men ran. They ran in the clothes they had: jeans and flip-flops, or work boots. Some men, their feet cut up, abandoned their plastic sandals on the side of the road and ran barefoot on the hot pavement. They ran in the heat of the afternoon—with temperatures well into the mid-80s°F and the air humid. They ran past the police lined up on the side of the road. In places, they ran past tables with bottled water, but the water had been left out in the sun, and was hot and undrinkable. They ran for a long time—maybe hours. Their jeans chafed their skin. Their lungs burned, and their muscles cramped. A few collapsed. Many tried to step off the road, to stop running and rest, but they were forced back, yelled at that they needed to finish the race.
The men, many thousands of them, had been press-ganged to run the Qatar Mega Marathon 2015, organized in Doha as an attempt to set a new world record for the race with the most runners. The race’s official website advertised the marathon as a protest against the bad press that Qatar had received after being awarded hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup. It billed the event as a “decisive response to the campaign waged by the sector of envious haters on the success of Qatar to host the 2022 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup, and to their false allegations of persecution of workers and residents in our beloved country.” Despite these efforts, enrollment in the race was low. Even after the organizers scaled back to a half-marathon and postponed the event from National Sports Day on February 2 to March 27—when the weather was much hotter, and each year hotter than the last—only a few hundred runners voluntarily registered. To make up for the shortfall of participants, the organizers conscripted construction and factory workers. At the end of race, the organizers announced that thirty-three thousand runners had participated. They fell many thousands short of the record.
The race was held on a Friday, the only protected rest day for workers. Buses picked the workers up in the early morning from their labor camps in the industrial area, a segregated zone in the desert where they were lodged. The Al Sadd Sports Club, which organized the race, later admitted that it had asked companies to encourage workers “with decent jobs” to take part, but insisted that participation was voluntary and appropriate running gear was made available to anyone who wanted it. Many of the workers bused to the marathon route would likely not have known that they would be expected to run a race. But all of them would have found it difficult to refuse. These workers were migrants. They worked in Qatar under a sponsorship system that gave their employers the ability to deport them without notice and for any reason. The photographs and footage of the race show South Asian and African men, massed at the starting line, wearing identical white T-shirts and running bibs marked with contestant numbers.
Still, some of the migrants refused to participate. The start time was delayed until 2:00 p.m., and workers who refused to run were ordered to remain on the buses that brought them, where they had already sat for the entire day in the heat, without water or food. When the club spokesperson was asked about the decision to confine workers to their buses, he said, “We wanted to keep the course clear, and for the course to look presentable.” He conceded that he pressed workers in the race to “keep going” because a world record was at stake. “I spoke to them very politely,” he added. “They are human as well, right?”
When I read the press coverage of the Mega Marathon, I was reminded of a field trip I had made to a construction site for an oil and gas facility in Qatar just a few months before. I was in Qatar studying workplace practices in the construction industry and the process through which workers developed skill on-site. As part of my fieldwork, I went to observe construction on a liquefied natural gas (LNG) train, where workers were building a section of the plant where natural gas would be pushed through a network of pipes and then cooled into a liquid so that it could be shipped around the world. The construction site in Qatar’s northern desert was massive. Tens of thousands of workers from different trades worked concurrently on different elements of the structure. Like other construction sites I visited in Qatar, it was frenetic and crowded. In many places, workers bunched up as they waited to walk through the narrow passageways marked out by scaffolds and ramparts. Throughout the day, I shadowed different trades—mostly scaffolders and welders.
In the afternoon, I went to one of the on-site welding workshops. Located in a large hangar-like structure, the workshop was a vast, multipurpose space: small subcomponents of the structure were welded in one corner, training to improve welding skills took place at another end of the hangar, and quality control and the verification of the integrity of welded seams took place in another quadrant. The Turkish director of the welding center, Mehmet, would later describe it to me in elegiac terms. “This place is like my paradise. I have twenty-five years working as a welder. [Welding] is something that comes into your body. It’s like your blood. I can just look from outside at the finished product, and I can see how the welder is doing. Even from the sparks, I can see his philosophy. I can see whether he is moving slow or fast, how much he understands the work.”
The LNG train required welding that was flawless. The materials that would be pushed through the train’s maze of pipes were highly volatile and flammable. To assess the welding quality, the center used an X-ray system. “Visual testing is not enough, even on the best seams,” explained Mehmet. Radiographic testing was essential because even slight discontinuities in the internal structure of the weld could have consequences that were catastrophic. “There are many factors. If you weld in the high heat, the seam won’t have integrity. If you are not confident, the seam won’t have integrity. If we see even one problem, we retrain,” added Mehmet. Natural gas and the potential for explosion meant there was no margin for error, and the center continually tested and reinforced the expertise of its workers, who were already incredibly adept.
Ordinarily, the center was busy and cacophonous, with hundreds of welders, supervisors, and apprentices at work. But the day I first visited, it was empty. There were two supervisors at the desks in the office at the entrance, a few workers were sweeping the floor, and a couple of others were quietly doing maintenance on machinery. The scaffolding manager who accompanied me that day asked where everyone was. “Sporting match,” answered one of the supervisors.
The company had scooped up hundreds of men from the welding hangar and sent them to this sporting event—perhaps a soccer game; the supervisor was unsure. Someone in the government had made the request. The company had supplied the workers to fill the bleachers in the audience so that the international press would not report an empty stadium in a country that wanted to position itself as a global sporting destination.
This kind of conscription of construction workers was commonplace in Qatar, although this was the first time I had observed it directly. By and large, companies viewed it as a tax, a request that disrupted production, but with which they had no choice other than to comply. Companies bused their workers from labor camps to the sporting facility where the workers would be used as props. The workers would be treated as bodies, press-ganged into whatever activity was required, perhaps in the heat, perhaps without sufficient access to water, food, or rest. The welders missing from the training center were also, undoubtedly, used in this way. And in the process, their humanity, like that of the migrants forced to run a half-marathon in flip-flops, was turned into something that was no longer clear or certain, something that was open to question. “They are human as well, right?”