The Indicator: Where the Migrant Workers Are

Architects’ design for al-Wakrah stadium, the main stadium for the 2022 World Cup. Image Courtesy of ZHA

Zaha Hadid’s unfortunate comments in response to worker deaths on construction sites for the 2022 World Cup has made Qatar the eye of a storm that has been raging globally for decades. But it’s not just about Qatar. This has been an issue for as long as there have been construction sites and for as long as poor people have swarmed to them for a chance at a better life.

Construction booms and migrant construction workers have always been two sides of the same equation, both dependent on the other, and, by the twisted logic of the global economy, both are the reason for the other’s existence. No migrant labor pool = no global city = no fantastic architecture, or something to this effect.

The migrant workers are the silent collaborators in global architecture, the invisible, faceless, “untouchables” who make the cost-effective construction of these buildings possible.

For decades there has been an unceasing flow of some of the world’s poorest citizens to the major construction sites connected with regional economic booms, Olympic games, and other nationalist or internationalist events. The venues for the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi were constructed by workers from Serbia, Bosnia, and Central Asian nations. Migrant workers are also flowing into Brazil as it prepares for next year’s World Cup. For this, workers are coming from Haiti, Bolivia, and even Bangladesh.

Fisht Olympic Stadium, by Populous, the main stadium for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Image Courtesy of 2014 XXII Winter Olympic Games

According to Amnesty International, which has been tracking the plight of migrant workers globally, there are as many as 1.35 million foreign nationals working in Qatar alone, not all of them in construction but spread across different service sectors, including domestic work. In fact, in Qatar’s economy, 94 percent of the total workforce is made up of migrant workers. The workers come from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Iran, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Egypt. As Amnesty is trying to show, they have names, faces, families, and human rights.

How much of the world’s architecture is built by migrant workers? More specifically, how many examples of cutting-edge global architecture are implicated in the exploitation of some of the world’s poorest populations? These are good questions to ask.

More importantly, can architecture wield its influence to do anything to improve working conditions? Zaha Hadid doesn’t think so. But she, and other international architects working very visibly and publicly on landmark projects that attract the world’s attention, do have agency to influence stakeholders. In fact, eye-catching architecture could be the catalyst needed to draw attention to the migrant worker issue. This is an opportunity for architects, in partnership with international organizations, local governments, and clients to take a stand. Otherwise such buildings – rather than symbolizing the potential of our globalized world – will just be monuments to our big, global problems.

Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring “The Indicator”, he is a frequent contributor to The Architect’s Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: Where the Migrant Workers Are" 12 Mar 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 24 May 2015. <>
  • Carlos

    All these “STARchitects” buildings call the attention for the freedom in three-dimensional expression the current design technologies provide. Why does technology then evolves in one aspect and is almost the same for centuries in the other aspect, that is: rational, safe and efficient CONSTRUCTION? I think THAT’S an important question to be made. because i know that the sincere answer would most probably be: “it’s cheaper to lose worker’s lives”

  • mobina

    how beautiful it is!

  • Aisha Key

    I’m an architect from Moscow, Russia. My proffessional dream is to work with skilled construction workers. Migrants from Asia( Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan and others) even dont know the language, they do terrible mistakes( lift wall declined on 30cm- other workers couldnt fix up the lift) . They dont know how to read the drawings properly: as a result I doubt that Olympic objects will stand more than 10 years… It’s not so cheap – to correct their work all the time.

  • Haskoll 赫斯科

    That’s amazing

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