A year from Qatar World Cup, exploited migrant workers fight for change on human rights

In a year’s time, the heroes of the so-called beautiful game will head to the tiny Gulf kingdom of Qatar in the hope of being crowned champions at the World Cup

But a growing number of critics are accusing its leaders and private construction firms of contributing to the systemic exploitation of migrant workers, some of whom have died in unexplained circumstances while building vast venues in the blazing heat.

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And while Qatar says it has made significant labor reforms to protect a migrant workforce of some 2 million — an estimated 95 percent of the country’s total working population — the World Cup is shining a light on migrant deaths and human rights challenges in the region.

Before dawn, workers typically from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines and Kenya are taken by bus each day from their designated accommodations to start work on colossal stadiums. The trip can take hours and temperatures regularly reach 102 Fahrenheit (39 Celsius).

A report released Friday by the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency that has an office in the country’s capital, Doha, said 50 migrant workers across all sectors died in work-related accidents in 2020 — mostly in falls or road traffic accidents — without providing data for other years. In addition there were 38,000 work-related injuries in 2020, 500 of them classed as severe. The report didn’t specify how many were related to the World Cup.

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

The report added that some work-related deaths may not have been properly recorded — a lack of information and potential errors from frontline medical staff mean some work-related deaths may not be recorded as such, it said. The ILO called for a review of the way the deaths of healthy young men from “natural causes” are investigated.

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

“These men are seemingly healthy, they have passed their tests to work in Qatar, and yet they die at a young age and their death certificate just states either natural causes, cardiac arrest or respiratory failure,” said May Romanos, a researcher on workers’ rights in the Gulf region for Amnesty.

“The issue is also concerning the climate in Qatar and knowing the heat and the weather conditions, with migrant workers on building sites and working as security guards.”.

Qatar disputes Amnesty’s findings and argues that the mortality and safety statistics for migrant workers were in line with international standards. 

The soccer world is taking notice of the campaign for better conditions. On Wednesday, Denmark’s national team said in a statement it would not take part in promotional activities at the World Cup, “to mark the continuing struggle for the improvement of human rights in Qatar.” Instead of the normal logos of commercial sponsors, the Danish players’ shirts will display what the statement called “critical messages.”

In March, Norway and Germany both took to the field before matches wearing shirts emblazoned with human rights slogans.

Workers accommodation during a tour at the construction site of the Al Bayt Stadium on Jan. 9, 2017 in Doha, Qatar. Lars Baron / Bongarts/Getty Images file

The number of migrant workers who have died while working in Qatar is disputed — human rights campaigners acknowledge there is no single reliable figure. Official Qatari statistics show 15,021 non-Qataris died from 2010 to 2019 across the country, including all causes of death.

The Qatari Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy of the 2022 World Cup, which was created by the government in 2011, says there have been just 38 deaths since 2015 among migrants working on official tournament projects, of which 35 were classed as “non-work related.”

Soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, said in a statement that the World Cup has contributed significantly to labor conditions across Qatar, through the Supreme Committee’s Workers’ Welfare Program.

“The robustness of this program has been recognised repeatedly by experts and trade unions over the years, and as stated in a recent U.N. report, constitutes ‘impressive changes’ and ‘sweeping reforms’ within the country,” said FIFA spokesperson Alois Hug.

International Labor Organization statistics show a much higher rate of occupational deaths 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 from 2016 is 1.7.

“Our commitment to workers’ welfare has resulted in significant improvements in accommodation standards, health and safety regulations, grievance mechanisms, health care provision, and reimbursements of illegal recruitment fees to workers,” the Supreme Committee said in an emailed statement.

The Government Communications Office of Qatar said in response to NBC News’ questions that “no other country has come so far on labor reform in such a short amount of time.”

“The government is committed to engaging collaboratively and constructively with international partners and critics to further improve standards for all migrant workers in Qatar,” it said in a statement. 

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

It also scrapped the system of “Kafala,” in which workers gave up their passports and could not leave the country or change jobs without permission from their employer, a practice still common across parts of the Middle East and which has been described by trade union groups as a form of modern slavery.

Qatar’s 2022 FIFA World Cup Lusail Stadium is seen under construction. Getty Images file

But for families who have lost loved ones, the reforms came too late, campaigners say.

“This 2022 World Cup, I often call it the blood diamond of 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 migrant workers are dying. And they [the workers] did not know about this risk.” 

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

In some cases, Ghimire said, families have had to wait days before being informed of the death and then aren’t told the cause.

“This is someone who’s taken a loan, goes abroad with the hope of making their future and making some money, and as a result of work conditions or other factors they die, and at least I think the family deserves to know how they died,” he said.

Ghimire is lobbying the Nepali government to stop what he calls a cycle of abuse that can often start in workers’ home countries, where agencies lend money to poor, vulnerable people often at extreme rates of interest to cover airfare and migration fees.

The Nepali government temporarily shut down three recruitment agencies last December for breaking the rules on interviews for jobs offered in Qatar.

“Someone who is going abroad, they don’t understand financial systems, they don’t go to banks, they take a loan from the informal sector,” Ghimire said. “Those who do not die can often end up in a debt trap and have to pay a huge sum of interest to those who provided the loan.

“When this happens we’ll all enjoy it and support our team but on the backside of it, these stadiums and facilities are constructed on the dead bodies of migrant workers from one of the poorest regions in the world.”

Speaking to NBC News by phone early one evening in October, a construction worker, 44, said he did not want to stay up too late because his shift started the next day at 6 a.m. The worker asked not to be named for fear of retribution from his employers for speaking to the media.

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

For some workers the trip to their worksite is two hours, he said, and this is without the added complication of sandstorms, which even in the middle of Doha, Qatar’s capital, can in some cases halt work entirely.

He was positive about the changes Qatar has made on workers’ rights, which means there is no working outside from 10 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. during the summer, but he added that it wasn’t always so. Have migrant workers died due to heat exhaustion?

“Yeah, before, but now it’s very strict on working outside. The climate is very difficult.”

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

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

He is working on Al Thumama stadium in Doha, which according to the Qatar 20222 Organizing Committee is “12km (7.5 miles) south of Doha’s glittering skyline and seafront promenade.” 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 that will pack 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 their home countries until recent labor reforms.

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

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