Doha, Qatar – FIFA’s executive committee has met in Zurich, Switzerland to discuss whether to move the 2022 World Cup to the winter, so that footballers can avoid playing in Qatar’s scorching summer heat.
But the scheduling issue was overshadowed by concerns that the migrant workers building the infrastructure in the run-up to the event are being subjected to abusive labour conditions, verging on what one report called “modern-day slavery”.
Nepalis comprise one of the biggest groups of blue-collar workers in Qatar. Drawn by plentiful jobs in the state, especially in the booming construction sector, about 400,000 Nepalis work in Qatar today – making up 20 percent of Qatar’s roughly two million people. On a per-capita basis, more Nepalis probably live in Qatar than any other country aside from Nepal itself.
But an article published last week in British newspaper the Guardian stated that dozens of Nepalese workers in Qatar died there this summer, and that thousands more toil under abusive conditions – reporting instances of employers confiscating workers’ passports and denying labourers access to free drinking water.
The report, titled “Revealed: Qatar’s World Cup ‘slaves'”, also said it found “evidence of forced labour on a huge World Cup infrastructure project”, describing the situation as “one of the richest nations exploiting one of the poorest to get ready for the world’s most popular sporting tournament”.
Representatives of the Nepali and Qatari governments criticised the article at a press conference held earlier this week. Ali al-Marri, the chairman of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee, said there is “no slavery or forced labour in Qatar”, and that “the information that the Guardian reported is false and the numbers cited by them are exaggerated”.
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Mohammad Ramadan, a legal advisor for Nepali citizens who works for Nepal’s government, said: “We deny all that is mentioned in these false reports, and ask the bodies that publish them not to use Nepali workers as a means to achieve their inappropriate targets and agendas. We also stress that all Nepali workers are safe and fully respected.”
However, Qatari labour minister Abdullah Saleh al-Khulaifi promised to hire more labour inspectors to enforce the law, and more translators to deal with workers’ complaints.
On Wednesday, the Ministry of Labour announced it had commissioned DLA Piper, a prominent international law firm, to investigate claims of forced labour.
Given Nepal’s political instability and widespread poverty, many young people choose to leave their home country to work abroad. Qatar is among the top destinations, with its rapidly growing economy in need of cheap manpower.
Many Nepalis earn as little – or less – than 800 riyals ($220) a month working in Qatar – where the average income is among the highest in the world. There is no legally mandated minimum wage, although some countries have made bilateral agreements with Qatar in which their nationals are supposed to be paid at or above a certain amount.
Yet given Nepal’s per capita GDP of only about $700 a year, some see working in the Gulf region as a better option.
One Nepali man who has been working in Qatar since the 1990s, first as a construction worker and now in the energy sector, said “everyone looks down on Nepalis” in Qatar – “even the Indians” – because they tend to be among the poorest and least educated workers in the country.
Although the man – who did not want to give his name or even a pseudonym for fear of adverse consequences – said he is treated well in his job, he said he has friends who live with up to 10 other people in cramped quarters in Doha’s Industrial Area, and who are not paid on time by their employers.
He equivocated when asked whether he would recommend his friends in Nepal to come work in Qatar, saying it depended on the employer. “Be informed before you come,” he said. “Make sure the company [in Qatar] and the recruitment agency [in Nepal] are legitimate.”
Despite Ramadan’s claims that “all Nepali workers are safe and fully respected” in Qatar, the Nepali government does not seem to have always agreed: In August 2012, it issued a ban on women under the age of 30 from working in the Gulf states as domestic labourers, claiming widespread abuse.
Most recently, Nepal’s ambassador to Qatar, Maya Kumari Sharma, was dismissed from her post after having referred to Qatar in an interview earlier this year as an “open jail”, regarding its treatment of workers.
She later apologised, claiming she had been misquoted – but nevertheless, the Nepali government announced last month that it would recall her amid what some said were her lack of diplomatic qualifications.
Countries like Nepal that send labourers to the Gulf “face a dilemma in that they really have two objectives”, said Martin Ruhs, a professor of political economy at Oxford, in an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this year. “On the one hand, they want to encourage the immigration of their workers to some of these countries because there’s important remittances to be had. At the same time, they’re obviously concerned about the protection of these workers while working abroad.”
The Nepali embassy in Qatar and Qatar’s Ministry of Labour did not respond to requests for comment.
A ‘culture of impunity’?
Of the 44 Nepalese workers reported to have died in Qatar this summer, more than half the deaths were due to workplace accidents or heart attacks. Temperatures in Qatar can reach the high 40s in summertime, and housing conditions at some labour camps have been criticised for overcrowding and poorly functioning electricity.
Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf labour expert with Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera: “If you don’t provide workers with copious amounts of water in the heat, if you don’t ensure they’re well-rested, and that they take their rest in the shade, and that their lodging is well-ventilated and air-conditioned, then they are at a severe risk of heat-related illness, including heat exhaustion and death.”
When asked why so many died from heart attacks, Qatar’s labour ministry responded to the Guardian that “this question would be better suited for the relevant health authorities or the government of Nepal”. It pointed out that Qatari law mandates all building sites in the country to provide free water to workers, claiming that it enforces law requiring that workers be paid regularly, and penalises companies that do not do so.
McGeehan, however, said that although relevant law exists, a “culture of impunity” in Qatar means that wrongdoers are not held accountable. “Violators of the labour law are not held criminally responsible for their actions … You get a paltry slap on the wrist, or your firm is blacklisted, but neither of those sanctions appear to have any deterrent effect.”
Khalifa Saleh Al Haroon, the founder of website iLoveQatar.net and a local blogger, said media reports have not acknowledged the “amazing improvements” in labour conditions in Qatar. “Their stories are hardly balanced. The community does care about blue-collar workers, the government does fine companies that violate labour laws … I think that most people are unhappy due to the motivations behind the [Guardian] article,” he said. “If we weren’t getting the World Cup, would they even care?”
The International Trade Union Confederation has estimated that as many as 4,000 people could die during the run-up to the World Cup, with one estimate putting Qatar’s occupational death rate at twice that of the European Union, and eight times higher than that in the UK.