One year away from Qatar World Cup, exploited migrant workers fight for human rights change

In a year from now, the heroes of the so-called beautiful game will travel to the small Gulf kingdom of Qatar in the hope of being crowned World Cup champions.

But a growing number of critics accuse its executives and private construction companies of contributing to the systemic exploitation of migrant workers, some of whom have died in unexplained circumstances as they built large sites in scorching heat.

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And while Qatar says it has made significant labor reforms to protect a migrant workforce of around 2 million people, or around 95% of the country’s total labor force, the World Cup highlights shed light on migrant deaths and human rights challenges in the region.

Before dawn, workers usually from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines and Kenya are taken by bus from their designated accommodation every day to begin work on colossal stadiums. The journey can take hours and temperatures regularly reach 102 Fahrenheit (39 Celsius).

A report released on Friday by the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency with an office in the country’s capital, Doha, said 50 migrant workers from all sectors died in workplace accidents in 2020 – mostly falls or traffic accidents – without providing data for other years. In addition, there were 38,000 workplace accidents in 2020, of which 500 were classified as serious. The report did not specify how many were linked to the World Cup.

Workers at the Al-Wakrah Stadium construction site outside the Qatari capital Doha.Karim Jaafar / AFP via Getty Images file

The report adds that some work-related deaths may not have been properly recorded – a lack of information and potential errors on the part of frontline medical staff means that some work-related deaths may not be recorded as such, he said. ILO called for a review of how deaths of healthy young men from “natural causes” are studied.

Human rights group Amnesty International alleged that Qatari authorities had failed to investigate thousands of migrant deaths over the past decade, some even before World Cup plans began, while suggesting that there were links between some deaths and dangerous working conditions.

“These men are apparently in good health, they passed their tests to work in Qatar, yet they die at a young age and their death certificate simply indicates natural causes, cardiac arrest or respiratory failure,” May said. Romanos, worker researcher. rights in the Gulf region for Amnesty.

“The issue also concerns the climate in Qatar and knowledge of heat and weather conditions, with migrant workers on construction sites and working as security guards.

Qatar disputes Amnesty’s findings and argues that the mortality and safety statistics of migrant workers met international standards.

The football world takes note of the campaign for better conditions. Wednesday, the Danish national team said in a press release he will not participate in promotional activities for the World Cup, “to mark the continued struggle for the improvement of human rights in Qatar”. Instead of the normal logos of commercial sponsors, the jerseys of Danish players will display what the statement calls “critical messages”.

In March, Norway and Germany both stepped onto the pitch before the matches wearing shirts bearing human rights slogans.

Accommodation for workers during a visit to the Al Bayt Stadium construction site on January 9, 2017 in Doha, Qatar. Lars Baron / Bongarts / Getty Images file

The number of migrant workers who died while working in Qatar is disputed – human rights activists admit there is no single reliable figure. Qatar’s official statistics show that 15,021 non-Qataris died from 2010 to 2019 across the country from all causes.

The Qatari Supreme Committee for the Delivery and Legacy of the 2022 World Cup, which was established by the government in 2011, says there have been only 38 deaths since 2015 among migrants working on official tournaments, 35 of which were classified as “non-working.” Related.”

International football governing body FIFA said in a statement that the World Cup has made a significant contribution to working conditions across Qatar, through the Supreme Committee’s worker protection program.

“The robustness of this program has been recognized time and time again by experts and unions over the years, and as stated in a recent UN report, constitute “impressive changes” and “radical reforms” in the country, “said FIFA spokesman Alois Hug.

Statistics from the International Labor Organization show a much higher occupational death rate for other countries: Armenia recorded 13.6 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2016, Egypt had 10.6 per 100,000 in 2018. Qatar’s figure for 2016 is 1.7.

“Our commitment to the well-being of workers has resulted in significant improvements in accommodation standards, health and safety regulations, grievance mechanisms, provision of health care and reimbursement of recruitment costs. illegal to workers, ”the Supreme Committee said in an emailed statement.

Qatar’s government communications office said in response to questions from NBC News that “no other country has gone so far in labor reform in such a short time.”

“The government is committed to engaging in a collaborative and constructive manner with international partners and critics to further improve standards for all migrant workers in Qatar,” he said in a statement.

The country’s recent reforms include banning working outdoors during the hottest part of the day; a new monthly minimum wage of 1,000 riyals (approximately $ 275) plus payments for food and accommodation if not included in contracts; and annual health checks for workers.

He also abolished the “Kafala” system, in which workers gave up their passports and could not leave the country or change jobs without their employer’s permission, a practice still common in parts of the Middle East. and which has been described by unions. groups like a form of modern slavery.

The Lusail Stadium for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is under construction. Getty Images file

But for families who have lost loved ones, reforms have come too late, activists say.

“This 2022 World Cup, I often call it the diamond in the blood of the World Cups,” said Barun Ghimire, a human rights lawyer in Nepal, the home country of thousands of migrant workers in Qatar. “It’s a blood-stained cup. Everyone knows that migrant workers are dying. And they [the workers] was not aware of this risk.

Ghimire described the portrayal of the families of men who died while working in Qatar as an “emotionally devastating” experience.

In some cases, Ghimire said, families have had to wait days to be notified of the death without knowing the cause.

“This is someone who took out a loan, went abroad in the hope of building his future and earning money, and due to working conditions or other factors, he dies, and at least I think the family deserves to know how he died, “he said.

Ghimire is lobbying the Nepalese government to end what he calls a cycle of abuse that can often start in workers’ countries of origin, where agencies lend money to poor and vulnerable people often to poor people. extreme interest rates to cover airline tickets and migration costs.

Nepalese government temporarily close three recruitment agencies last December for breaking interview rules for jobs offered in Qatar.

“Someone who goes abroad, he doesn’t understand financial systems, he doesn’t go to banks, he takes out a loan from the informal sector,” Ghimire said. “Those who don’t die can often find themselves in a debt trap and having to pay a huge amount of interest to those who made the loan.

“When that happens we will all benefit from it and support our team, but in reverse these stadiums and facilities are built on the corpses of migrant workers from one of the poorest regions of the world.”

Speaking to NBC News by phone early one October evening, a construction worker, 44, said he didn’t want to stay awake too late because his shift started the next day at 6 a.m. his employers for speaking to the media.

Workers are seen in their accommodation at Al Bayt Stadium on January 9, 2017 in Doha, Qatar.Lars Baron / Bongarts / Getty Images file

For some workers, the trip to their job site is two hours, he said, and that without the added complication of sandstorms, which even in the middle of Doha, the capital of Qatar, can in some cases stop work completely.

He was positive about the changes Qatar has made to workers’ rights, which means there are no work outside from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. during the summer, but he adds that it was not always so. Have migrant workers died of heat exhaustion?

“Yes, before, but now it’s very strict to work outside. The climate is very difficult.

Qatar 2022 will be the first World Cup to be played in winter, due to the extreme heat in the region, and the first in an Arab country. Doha’s record high temperature is 122.7 degrees Fahrenheit (50.4 degrees Celsius), set in 2010. Even in November, temperatures can reach 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius).

The worker has been in Qatar since 2014 and earns minimum wage, sending 60% of that house to his family in the Philippines, like the vast majority of migrant workers here who send money to their home country.

He is working on the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, which, according to the Qatar 20222 Organizing Committee, is “12 km (7.5 miles) south of the glittering skyline and seafront promenade. Doha Sea ”. Its design is based on the ghafiya, a traditional cap worn by men and boys across the Middle East and a “symbol of dignity and independence”.

The 40,000 fans who will fill the stadium when the World Cup kicks off next November may not realize that many of the workers who built it couldn’t legally change jobs or return to the city. their country of origin before recent labor reforms.

The construction worker, however, insisted that he would stay another two or three years: “I think more and more migrants in Qatar are staying here because [work] can’t support me in the Philippines. I’m doing my best to change my life.


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