‘Our dreams never came true.’ These men helped build Qatar’s World Cup, now they are struggling to survive
Kamal was standing outside a shop with other migrant workers, having finished yet another grueling working day, when he and — he says — a few others were arrested this August. Without explanation, the 24-year-old says he was put into a vehicle and, for the next week, kept in a Qatari jail, the location and name of which he does not know.
“When they arrested me, I couldn’t say anything, not a single word, as I was so scared,” he told CNN Sport, speaking at home in southern Nepal where he has been working on a farm since being deported three months ago.
Kamal — CNN has changed the names of the Nepali workers to protect them from retaliation — is one of many migrant workers wanting to tell the world of their experiences in Qatar, a country that will this month host one of sport’s greatest, most lucrative, spectacles — the World Cup, a tournament which usually unites the world as millions watch the spectacular goals and carefully-choreographed celebrations.
It will be a historic event, the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East, but one also mired in controversy. Much of the build-up to this tournament has been on more sober matters, that of human rights, from the deaths of migrant workers and the conditions many have endured in Qatar, to LGBTQ and women’s rights.
Kamal says he has yet to be paid the 7,000 Qatari Riyal bonus (around $1,922) he says he is entitled to from his previous employers, nor 7,000 Riyal in insurance for injuring two fingers at work.
“I wasn’t told why I was being arrested. People are just standing there … some are walking with their grocery [sic], some are just sitting there consuming tobacco products … they just arrest you,” he adds, before explaining he could not ask questions as he does not speak Arabic.
Describing the conditions in the cell he shared with 24 other Nepali migrant workers, he says he was provided with a blanket and a pillow, but the mattress on the floor he had to sleep on was riddled with bed bugs.
“Inside the jail, there were people from Sri Lanka, Kerala (India), Pakistan, Sudan, Nepal, African, Philippines. There were around 14-15 units. In one jail, there were around 250-300 people. Around 24-25 people per room,” he says.
“When they take you to the jail, they don’t give you a room right away. They keep you in a veranda. After a day or two, once a room is empty, they keep people from one country in one room.”
Using a smuggled phone, he spoke to friends, one of whom, he says, brought his belongings — including his passport — to the jail, though he says he was sent home after the Nepali embassy had sent a paper copy of his passport to the jail. CNN has reached out to the embassy but has yet to receive a response.
“When they put me on the flight, I started thinking: ‘Why are they sending workers back all of a sudden? It’s not one, two, 10 people … they are sending 150, 200, 300 workers on one flight,'” he says.
“Some workers who were just roaming outside wearing (work) dress were sent back. They don’t even allow you to collect your clothes. They just send you back in the cloth you are wearing.”
Kamal believes he was arrested because he had a second job, which is illegal under Qatar’s 2004 Labour Law and allows authorities to cancel a worker’s work permit. He says he worked an extra two to four hours a day to supplement his income as he was not making enough money working six eight-hour days a week.
Qatar has a 90-day grace period in which a worker can remain in the country legally without another sponsor, but if they have not had their permit renewed or reactivated in that time they risk being arrested or deported for being undocumented.
He says he received paperwork upon his arrest, which Amnesty International says would likely have explained why he was being detained, but as it was in Arabic he did not know what it said and no translator was provided.
A Qatari government official told CNN in a statement: “Any claims that workers are being jailed or deported without explanation are untrue. Action is only taken in very specific cases, such as if an individual participates in violence.”
The official added that 97% of all eligible workers were covered by Qatar’s Wage Protection System, established in 2018, “which ensures wages are paid in full and on time.” Further work was being done to strengthen the system, the official said.
Some workers never returned home
With the opening match just days away, on-the-pitch matters are a mere footnote because this tournament has come at a cost to workers who left their families in the belief that they would reap financial rewards in one of the world’s richest countries per capita. Some would never return home. None of the three Nepali workers CNN spoke to were richer for their experience. Indeed, they are in debt and full of melancholy.
The Guardian reported last year that 6,500 South Asian migrant workers have died in Qatar since the country was awarded the World Cup in 2010, most of whom were involved in low-wage, dangerous labor, often undertaken in extreme heat.
The report did not connect all 6,500 deaths with World Cup infrastructure projects and has not been independently verified by CNN.
Hassan Al Thawadi — the man in charge of leading Qatar’s preparations — told CNN’s Becky Anderson that the Guardian’s 6,500 figure was a “sensational headline” that was misleading and that the report lacked context.
A government official told CNN there had been three work-related deaths on stadiums and 37 non-work-related deaths. In a statement, the official said the Guardian’s figures were “inaccurate” and “wildly misleading.”
“The 6,500 figure takes the number of all foreign worker deaths in the country over a 10-year period and attributes it to the World Cup,” the official said. “This is not true and neglects all other causes of death including illness, old age and traffic accidents. It also fails to recognize that only 20% of foreign workers in Qatar are employed on construction sites.”
It has been widely reported that Qatar has spent $220 billion leading up to the tournament, which would make it the most expensive World Cup in history, though this likely includes infrastructure not directly associated with stadium construction. A spokesperson for the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) which, since its formation in 2011, has been responsible for overseeing the infrastructure projects and planning for the World Cup, told CNN that the tournament budget was $6.5 billion, without expanding on what that cost covered.
Eight new stadiums rose from the desert, and the Gulf state expanded its airport, constructed new hotels, rail and highways. All would have been constructed by migrant workers, who — according to Amnesty International — account for 90% of the workforce in a near-three million population.
Since 2010, migrant workers have faced delayed or unpaid wages, forced labor, long hours in hot weather, employer intimidation and an inability to leave their jobs because of the country’s sponsorship system, human rights organizations have found.
However, the health, safety and dignity of “all workers employed on our projects has remained steadfast,” a statement from the SC read.
“Our efforts have resulted in significant improvements in accommodation standards, health and safety regulations, grievance mechanisms, healthcare provision and reimbursements of illegal recruitment fees to workers.
“While the journey is on-going, we are committed to delivering the legacy we promised. A legacy that improves lives and lays the foundation for fair, sustainable and lasting labour reforms.”
Last year, in an interview with CNN Sport anchor Amanda Davies, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said that while “more needs to be done,” progress had been made.
“I’ve seen the great evolution that has happened in Qatar, which was recognized — I mean not by FIFA — but by labor unions around the world, by international organizations,” said Infantino.
‘It was difficult to breathe’
We are, unusually, writing about a World Cup in November because the competition had to be moved from its usual June-July slot to Qatar’s winter as the heat is so extreme in the country’s summer months — temperatures can reach around 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit) in June — that playing in such conditions could have posed a health risk to players.
Hari is 27 years old and, like many of his compatriots, left Nepal for Qatar as his family — he was one of five siblings with just his father at home — desperately needed money, primarily to eat. Since 2013, Nepal’s government-mandated minimum wage has been set at $74 a month, according to minimum-wage.org. He says that his monthly wage in Qatar was 700 Rial a month ($192).
After moving to Qatar in 2014, he worked in four places during his four-year stay: at a supermarket, a hotel and airport, but the most difficult job, he says, was in construction when he had to carry tiles up buildings “six to seven stories above” in overbearing heat, plus lay pipelines in deep pits.
“It was too hot,” he tells CNN. “The foreman was very demanding and used to complain a lot. The foreman used to threaten to reduce our salaries and overtime pay.
“I had to carry tiles on my shoulder to the top. It was very difficult going up through the scaffolding. In the pipeline work, there were 5-7 meters deep pits, we had to lay the stones and concrete, it was difficult due to the heat. It was difficult to breathe. We had to come upstairs using a ladder to drink water.
“It never happened to me, but I saw some workers fainting at work. I saw one Bengali, one Nepali … two to three people faint while working. They took the Bengali to medical services. I’m not sure what happened to him.”
During his time in Qatar, government regulations generally prohibited workers from working outdoors between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. from June 15 to August 31. He said one company he worked for followed these rules.
He added: “At some places, they didn’t have water. Some places, they didn’t provide us water on time. At some places, we used to go to houses nearby asking for water.”
Working long hours in extreme heat has, some non-governmental organizations believe, caused a number of deaths and put lives at risk in Qatar.
In 2019, research published in the Cardiology Journal, exploring the relationship between the deaths of more than 1,300 Nepali workers between 2009 and 2017 and heat exposure, found a “strong correlation” between heat stress and young workers dying of cardiovascular problems in the summer months.
The government official told CNN that there had been a “consistent decline” in the mortality rate of migrant workers, including a decline in heat stress disorders, “thanks in large part to our comprehensive heat stress legislation.”
“Qatar has always acknowledged that work remains to be done, notably to hold unscrupulous employers to account,” the government official added. “Systemic reform does not happen overnight and shifting the behavior of every company takes time as is the case with any country around the world.”
‘Heat does not typically injure on its own’
Natasha Iskander, Professor of Urban Planning and Public Service at New York University, tells CNN that heat can kill “in ways that are confusing and unclear.”
“Fatal heat stroke can look like a heart attack or a seizure. Sometimes, heat kills through the body, amplifying manageable and often silent conditions, like diabetes and hypertension, and turning them into sudden killers,” she explains.
“As a result, Qatar, in the death certificates that it has issued after migrant construction workers have collapsed, has been able to push back against the correlation between heat stress and deaths and claim instead that the deaths are due to natural causes, even though the more proximate cause is work in the heat.”
Determining the number of workers injured by heat is even harder, she says, because many injuries may not become apparent until years later, when migrants have returned home and young men “find that their kidneys no longer function, that they suffer from chronic kidney disease, or that their hearts have begun to fail, displaying levels of cardiac weakness that are debilitating.”
“Heat does not typically injure on its own,” she adds. “Workers are exposed to heat and heat dangers through the labor relations on Qatari worksites. The long hours, physically intense work, the forced overtime, the abusive conditions, the bullying on site all shape how exposed workers are to heat. Additionally, conditions beyond the worksite also augmented heat’s power to harm — things like poor sleep, insufficient nutrition or a room that was not cool enough to allow the body to reset after a day in the heat. In Qatar, the employer housed workers in labor camps, and workers as a matter of policy were segregated to industrial areas, where living accommodations were terrible.”
According to Amnesty International, Qatari authorities have not investigated “thousands” of deaths of migrant workers over the past decade “despite evidence of links between premature deaths and unsafe working conditions.” That these deaths are not being recorded as work-related prevents families from receiving compensation, the advocacy group states.
In its statement, the SC said that its commitment to publicly disclose non-work-related deaths went beyond the requirements of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences regulations (RIDDOR), which defines and provides classification for how to document work-related and non-work-related incidents.
The statement added: “The SC investigates all non-work-related deaths and work-related fatalities in line with our Incident Investigation Procedure to identify contributory factors and establish how they could have been prevented. This process involves evidence collection and analysis and witness interviews to establish the facts of the incident.”
Amnesty International’s Ella Knight told CNN Sport that her organization would continue to push Qatar to “thoroughly investigate” deaths of migrant workers, including past deaths, to “ensure the families of the deceased have the opportunity to rebuild their lives.”
Barun Ghimire is a human rights lawyer based in Kathmandu whose work focuses on the exploitation of Nepali migrants working abroad. He tells CNN that the families he advocates for have not received satisfactory information on their loved ones’ deaths. “Families send out healthy, young family member to work and they receive news that the family member died when they were sleeping,” he says. In a separate interview, he told CNN last year: “The Qatar World Cup is really the bloody cup — the blood of migrant workers.”
Last year, Qatari legislation was strengthened regarding outdoor working conditions, expanding summertime working hours during which outdoor work is prohibited — replacing legislation introduced in 2007 — and additionally putting into law that “all work must stop if the wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT) raises beyond 32.1C (89.8F) in a particular workplace.” The regulations also mandate annual health checks for workers, as well as mandatory risk assessments.
“We recognize that heat stress is a particular issue in the summer months in Qatar,” a Qatari government official said. “In May 2021, Qatar introduced a requirement for companies to conduct annual health checks for workers, as well as mandatory risk assessments to mitigate the dangers of heat stress. Companies are expected to adopt flexible, self-monitored working hours where possible, adjust shift rotations, enforce regular breaks, provide free cold drinking water and shaded workspaces, and adhere to all other guidelines with respect to heat stress outlined by the Ministry of Labour.
“Every summer, Qatar’s labor inspectors carry out thousands of unannounced visits to work sites across the country to ensure that heat stress rules are being followed,” the official added. “Between June and September 2022, 382 work sites were ordered to close for violating the rules.”
Iskander said a heat point of 32.1C WBGT was “already dangerous.”
“Working at the physical intensity that construction workers do in Qatar for any amount of time at that temperature is damaging to the body,” she explained.
“The regulation relied on the assumption that workers would be able to self-pace and rest as needed whenever they experienced heat stress. Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time on a Qatari construction site knows that workers have no ability to self-pace.”
Knight adds: “The fact investigations into migrant workers deaths are often not happening precludes the possibility of greater protections being implemented because if you don’t know what is really happening to these people how can you then implement and enforce effective measures to increase their protection?”
For the majority of his time in Qatar, Hari said he felt sad. He would watch planes take off during his six months tending the airport gardens and question why he was in the country. But he had paid 90,000 Nepali rupees ($685) to a Nepali recruitment company that facilitated his move. He was also told, he says, by the company he had joined that he would have had to pay 2,000 to 3,000 Riyal ($549-$823) to buy himself out of his contract.
His friends, he said, counseled him as he continued to work long, lonely days for, Hari says, not enough money to live and save for his family. Amnesty International says many migrants pay high fees to “unscrupulous recruitment agents in their home country” which make the workers scared to leave their jobs when they get to Qatar.
Now, he is a father-of-two, and work is plowing fields in Nepal as a tractor driver, but Hari hopes one day to work abroad again, his heart set on Malaysia. “I don’t want my children to go through what I did. I want to build a house, buy some land. That’s what I am thinking. But let’s see what God has planned,” he says.
‘Our dreams never came true’
Sunit has been back in Nepal since August after working just eight months in Qatar. He had expected to be there for two years, but the collapse of the construction company he worked for meant he and many others returned with money still owed to them, he says. He struggles to find work in Nepal, meaning feeding his two children and paying school fees is difficult.
He had dreamed of watching World Cup matches from the rooftop of the hotel he had helped build. One of the stadiums — the name of which he does not know — was a 10-minute walk from the hotel. “We used to talk about it,” he says of the World Cup. “But we had to return, and our dreams never came true. The stadium activities were visible from the hotel. We could see the stadium from the hotel rooftop.”
In helping construct the city center hotel, the name of which he doesn’t remember, he would carry bags of plaster mix and cement, weighing from 30 to 50 kilos, on his shoulders up to 10 to 12 floors, he says.
“The lift was rarely functional. Some people couldn’t carry it and dropped it halfway. If you don’t finish your job, you were threatened saying the salary would be deducted for that day,” he says. “The foreman used to complain that we were taking water breaks as soon as we got to work. They used to threaten us saying: ‘We will not pay you for the day.’ We said: ‘Go ahead. We are humans, we need to drink water.’
“It was very hot. It used to take 1.5 to two hours to get to the top. I used to get tired. I used to stop on the way. Then proceed again slowly. Yes, the supervisors used to yell at us. But what could we do?”
He says he had paid an agent in Nepal 240,000 Nepali rupees (around $1,840) before leaving for Qatar. He says he has filed a case with the police about the agent as he had been unable to fulfill his two-year contract, but there have been no developments. He says the owners of the company he worked for in Qatar were arrested because they did not pay laborers. The company did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment, neither did it respond to questions from the Business & Human Rights Centre, an advocacy group, about protests over unpaid wages.
For a month, he says, he was in his accommodation with no work or money to buy food — he borrowed to eat — so he and his fellow workers called the police, who brought food with them.
“The police came again after 10-15 days and said we have arrested the company people. (The police) distributed food again,” he says. “They told us the company has collapsed and the government will send all the workers back home.”
“I’m extremely sad,” he adds. “I mean, it is what it is. Nothing would change by regretting it. I get mad (at the company) but what can I do? Even if I had tried to fight back, it would have been my loss.”
The SC said it has established what it claims is a “first-of-its-kind” Workers’ Welfare Forum, which it said allowed workers to elect a representative on their behalf and, when companies failed to comply with the WWF, it steps in, demands better and alerts the authorities.
Since 2016, the SC said 69 contractors had been demobilized, 235 contractors placed on a watch list and a further seven blacklisted. “We understand there is always room for improvement,” the statement added.
‘Expertise and heroism’
Qatar, a peninsula smaller than Connecticut and the smallest World Cup host in history, is set to host an estimated 1.5 million fans over the month-long tournament, which begins on November 20. There are already reports of accommodation concerns for such a vast number of visitors.
The spotlight is no doubt on this Gulf state, as has progressively been the case since it was controversially awarded the tournament over a decade ago — though Qatari officials have previously “strongly denied” to CNN the allegations of bribery which has surrounded its bid.
Such attention has brought about reforms, significantly dismantling the Kafala system which gives companies and private citizens control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status.
In Qatar, migrant workers can now change jobs freely without permission from their employer. But Knight adds: “Another aspect of the Kafala system, the criminal charge of absconding still exists, and this, along with other tools that are still available to employers, means that, fundamentally, the power balance between workers and employers, the imbalance remains great.”
Knight says unpaid wages is still an issue as the wage protection system “lacks enforcement mechanisms,” while she also says employers can cancel a worker’s ID at a “push of a button,” meaning they risk arrest and deportation. Additionally, labor committees intended to help workers are under-resourced and “lack the capacity to deal with the number of cases that are coming to them.”
Ghimire agrees that there have been a few positive changes to employment laws but adds that it is “more show and tell.”
“Many workers who work in construction are untouched, so there’s still exploitation going on,” he tells CNN.
Qatar’s government official told CNN work remained to be done but that “systemic reform does not happen overnight, and shifting the behavior of every company takes time as is the case with any country around the world.
“Over the last decade, Qatar has done more than any other country in the region to strengthen the rights of foreign workers, and we will continue to work in close consultation with international partners to strengthen reforms and enforcement.”
Human Rights Watch’s #PayUpFIFA campaign wants Qatar and FIFA to pay at least $440 million — an amount equal to the prize money being awarded at the World Cup — to the families of migrant workers who have been harmed or killed in preparation for the tournament.
Families of workers who have died face uncertain futures, HRW says, especially children. Those who survived and returned home, cheated of wages or injured, remain trapped in debt, it says, “with dire consequences for their families.”
Ghimire says compensation is key, but so too is making the world aware of what has taken place to make this tournament happen.
“People are concerned about clothing brands, and the meat they eat, but what about mega events? Isn’t it time we ask how this was possible?” he asks.
“Everyone who will watch should know at what cost this was even possible and how workers were treated. Players should know, sponsors should know.
“Would it be the same situation if it was European workers dying in Qatar? If it was Argentinean workers, would Argentina be concerned about playing?
“Because it’s migrant workers from poor south Asian countries, they’re invisible people. Forced labor, death of workers, while making a World Cup is unacceptable. As a football fan, it makes me sad; as a lawyer, it makes me really disappointed.”
Earlier this month, Qatar’s Labor Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri rejected the prospect of a remedy fund.
A Qatar government official said the country’s Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund was “effective in providing compensation for workers and their families” with the fund reimbursing workers with more than $350 million so far this year.
In terms of the SC’s efforts to ensure repayment of recruitment fees, as of December 2021, workers have received $22.6 million, with an additional $5.7 million committed by contractors, according to FIFA.
Last month, FIFA’s Deputy Secretary General Alasdair Bell said “compensation is certainly something that we’re interested in progressing.”
It has been widely reported that FIFA has urged nations participating in the World Cup to focus on football when the tournament kicks off.
FIFA confirmed to CNN that a letter signed by FIFA President Gianni Infantino and the governing body’s secretary general Fatma Samoura was sent out on November 3 to the 32 nations participating in the global showpiece but would not divulge the contents. However, a number of European federations have issued a joint statement saying they would campaign at the tournament on human rights and for a migrant workers center and a compensation fund for migrant workers.
The motto for Qatar’s bid team in 2010 was ‘Expect Amazing.’ In many ways, this year’s World Cup has replicated that maxim.
As NYU’s Iskander says: “One of the things that is not really covered in the coverage of the World Cup and the coverage of this enormous construction boom is the expertise and heroism of the workers who built it.
“They built buildings that were unimaginable to everyone, including the engineers and designers, until they were built. They performed acts of bravery that are unsung. They operated at levels of technical complexity and sophistication that are unparalleled. And yet their contribution to building the World Cup is really rarely featured, downplayed.
“They are represented, generally speaking, as exploited and oppressed. And it’s true that they have been exploited and oppressed, but they are also the master craftsmen that built this Cup, and they are enormously proud of what they have built.”
Hosting this tournament has undoubtedly put Qatar under the global spotlight. The question is whether the world can enjoy watching what the migrant workers built, knowing the true cost of this billion-dollar extravaganza.
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