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21st Nov 2021

Life in Qatar as a migrant worker: What it costs to build a World Cup

Simon Lloyd

With help from Muhammad Owasim Uddin Bhuyan

Abdus Sattar wept as he explained his decision to his pregnant wife. He would be gone for years – missing the birth of his first child

Dhaka was Abdus’ home. He had grown up among the Bangladeshi capital’s vast urban sprawl. The sights and smells of its thronging streets were all he had ever known. Never once, did the idea of leaving cross his mind.

But over the course of his lifetime, Dhaka’s population had grown dramatically – more than trebling from 6 to 21 million in 25 years. Jobs were sparse. Abdus, who was in his late 20s and married with a baby on the way, struggled to find work. After losing his job in a gas cylinder shop, which had paid him a monthly wage of 5,000 Taka (£43), he was unemployed for months. Finding a new job in Dhaka started to feel impossible.

The only option was to look for work abroad. Abdus wept as he explained his decision to his pregnant wife. He would be gone for years – missing the birth of his first child. His heart was breaking but he had no choice. This was the only way, he thought, to give his family a better future.

Qatar was the logical destination. It was early 2015, and in little over seven years, the country would be hosting a World Cup. Construction work was booming. Ultra-modern football stadiums and futuristic skyscrapers were already taking shape in and around its capital, Doha. People like Abdus, he was told, were needed to get the job done. More importantly, they would be paid well for doing so.

The first obstacle was pulling together enough money to pay the migration fee of 370,000 Taka (£3,150). In his old job, it would have taken Abdus six years to earn that amount. So, he borrowed from family members and took out loans to pay the fee.

After successfully completing the interview and medical examinations, he signed a contract with a construction company and was told he would receive a monthly wage of 1,000 Qatari Riyal (£200) – more than four times the salary he had earned back in his last job. Perhaps naively, he believed there would be scope for an increase in wages the longer he spent in Qatar.

And so, in March 2015, Abdus set out for Doha. It would four years before he saw his family again.

Abdus quickly discovered all was not not as he had expected when he reached Qatar. He was surprised to face a second interview, after which he was informed that his monthly wage would be slashed by 30 per cent. But by then, Abdus was locked in. He had loans to pay and a family thousands of miles away that depended on him. There was no option but to work.

Abdus says he worked on numerous stadiums to be used in the 2022 World Cup, installing air-conditioning units.

The construction sites were often exposed to the searing desert sun with little shade. With daytime temperatures sometimes soaring to over 40°C, Abdus says it was difficult to do his job. On multiple occasions, he saw co-workers slip in and out of consciousness as they struggled with heatstroke. Some, he says, never returned to work. He doesn’t know what happened to them.

The labour camp where Abdus lived was horribly cramped. His bunk bed was in a room designed for four people, but he was forced to share it with as many as ten others.

Abdus longed to return home. His dad, who had been in poor health when he left, passed away. In the end, he couldn’t take it anymore. Abdus returned to Dhaka in January 2019, finally meeting his three-year-old daughter, Sheuli, for the first time. He had covered the cost of the migration fee but had little money left for anything else.

The four years he spent in Qatar were all for nothing.

Abdus feels cheated by his experience in Qatar, but in many ways, he is one of the lucky ones. He, unlike thousands of other migrant workers, got to go home.

Qatar’s migrant workforce currently stands at around 2 million people. Earlier this year, The Guardian ran an article headlined “6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded”. The report explained that, in actual fact, the death toll was far greater than 6,500, as this number only factored in figures from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. There was no data from other countries such as Kenya and the Philippines, from which large numbers of workers departed for Qatar.

Amnesty International have highlighted how Qatari authorities have failed to investigate the deaths of thousands of migrant workers over the past decade, despite evidence of links between premature deaths and the unsafe, hot conditions.

Muhammad Owasim Uddin Bhuyan is a journalist and activist from Dhaka. He has dedicated the last decade to covering the human rights abuses and injustices suffered by his compatriots in Qatar and other foreign states. He compiled data from Bangladesh for the widely-shared Guardian article as well as working with Amnesty.

While pleased the World Cup has amplified their plight to the wider international community, he stresses that the alarming headlines about death figures are only part of the story.

“There are lots of issues of workers being exposed to the extreme heat,” he tells JOE. “Many have died, as has been reported, but people don’t always think about the implications this has for their families.”

Bhuyan’s work has seen him interview countless returning workers such as Abdus. Their accounts of their experiences often cover similar themes: long working hours, squalid and cramped living conditions, low pay and employers confiscating passports and documents which prevent them from leaving for home or finding work elsewhere. He has also interviewed family members of workers who have died.

“In many cases, they have not been compensated financially for their loss,” he says. “This, as you can imagine, leaves them in a very vulnerable position. Not only are they grieving the loss of a loved one, they have also lost their main – sometimes only – source of income.”

Many of Bangladesh’s migrant workers are from rural areas of the country. Bhuyan explains they are often uneducated and illiterate, enticed by what seems like an opportunity of a lifetime. The recruitment procedure is unregulated, with hard-to-trace “middlemen” seeking to take advantage of the situation for person gain.

“Most Bangladeshi workers find work in the construction and housekeeping sectors,” he says. “Many of them go there without fully understanding what they have signed up to.

“When I have spoken to them, they haven’t seen their work agreement or job description. They don’t know how much money they should be earning or how many hours they have to work. Because of this, they are vulnerable before they have even set foot in Qatar. I’ve found that many Bangladeshi workers in Qatar are frequently cheated by these ‘middlemen’.”

With Qatar’s World Cup drawing ever closer, focus on the country’s human rights record has intensified. With qualification now clinched, the England national team have revealed that they will soon meet together to decide on their own plan of action with regards to the tournament. They also said they “noted” the protests of other national teams.

Earlier this year, the issue became major news across European football. Norwegian club Tromsø called on their football association to withdraw from the tournament in response to the death figures published by The Guardian and the situation quickly escalated, with several of the country’s most prominent clubs responding with statements confirming they would also back a Norwegian boycott of the tournament.

The news quickly reached the national team, who opted to wear t-shirts carrying the message “Human Rights – On and off the pitch” ahead of their opening World Cup qualifier in Gibraltar. Players from Germany, Netherlands and Denmark held similar t-shirt protests before their respective qualifying games.

Ultimately, representatives of Norway’s biggest clubs voted against the boycott in the summer. But in some respects, it didn’t matter. The topic of where the World Cup would be held and the plight of the tens of thousands of people toiling to make sure it was ready in time was now a bigger talking point than ever before.

The weight of scrutiny from the wider international community has forced some change in Qatar.

In August of last year, Qatari authorities introduced new laws which abolished restrictions on migrant workers changing jobs without the need for employer permission and introduced a monthly minimum wage of 1,000 Qatari riyal – the salary Abdus was promised before he departed for Doha and had it reduced. Some workers would even be entitled to basic allowances. This was undoubtedly a step in the right direction but, as Amnesty warned, employers would retain “considerable” power.

Earlier this year, in a letter urging FIFA to take urgent action to ensure the World Cup leaves a positive, lasting legacy for all of the country’s migrant workers, Amnesty welcomed changes to the controversial kafala sponsorship system, which legally bound migrant workers to their employer and restricted their ability to find other jobs or leave the country. Such legal reforms would make it easier for workers to escape the clutches of exploitative employers, the letter acknowledged, but were unlikely to significantly reduce the abuse itself or improve migrant workers’ conditions without further measures and guaranteed enforcement.

In May, Qatari authorities also issued new regulations which extended a ban on outdoor work during the peak of the country’s heat season, also making health checks for workers mandatory. The outdoor work ban was increased by an hour, so that it runs from 10am. to 3.30 p.m. from June until mid-September – several weeks longer than the previous regulations. Temperature in a workplace must stop if temperatures exceed 32.1°C at any time.

Bhuyan says that the picture has changed slightly in the decade since Qatar was awarded football’s flagship event. Generally, workers there are more protected than they once were and not all are subjected to the harrowing conditions that have drawn headlines and widespread condemnation. But do the changes go far enough? Do they bring any comfort to the families of those who have died – often in unexplained circumstances?

“Not every migrant worker lives in terrible conditions in Qatar,” Bhuyan admits. “Not every worker who goes there has a bad experience. But many of them do and that is why I do what I do.

“Their liberties are cut, their wages are cut. They are designated jobs they did not expect before leaving their countries of origin. People need to hear about this.

“Things are changing there,” he adds. “But only because of our pressure.

“It is still not enough. We must continue to highlight what has happened, what is happening. Only with more pressure will the situation improve.

“With the World Cup, it is our time to raise our issues in global media and with global authorities. We need to show the situation in Qatar.

“People need to know these real issues, the real stories of the people who have gone there. Now more than ever, people have to press the Qatari authorities to improve their standards.”

When the World Cup does arrive, and as we invariably get swept up in the excitement, it is imperative we remember what this tournament was built on.

This showpiece event, the biggest in sport, has come at the cost of human lives, due to a regime that doesn’t value them, and a governing body whose only concern comes in the form of crisp notes.

People have died so that we can watch football. Children have lost their parents, parents have lost their children. Even the lucky ones, like Abdus, have lost years they can never get back – all so that we can have fun next winter.

That, rather than anything happening on the pitch, should be its legacy. Only then can it be prevented from happening again.