FIFA World Cup, Qatar, & Migrant Workers: A Tale of Abuse, Deaths, & Reform
In 2018, Qatar ended the ‘exit permit’ system, allowing workers to leave without the permission from their employer.
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“The construction of the house that my father started to build with his friend 10 years ago is still incomplete,” lamented 30-year-old Shravan, a resident of Telangana's Nizamabad, over the phone.
He lost his father Ramesh Kalladi, 50, who was working in Qatar for nearly seven years, on 10 August 2016. The official cause of death given to the family was cardiac arrest – a claim contested by Shravan.
Kalladi is one of those many unaccounted Indians who have lost their lives working for construction companies, especially those working to construct large stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The World Cup will start in Qatar on 20 November.
“My father worked in a construction company in Qatar and he was made to drive an old vehicle without any air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat there. He was made to work overtime and drive long distances without a break. He got sick and died because of this,” Shravan told The Quint.
Several studies in Poland-based medical journal Cardiology Journal have shown that working in extreme heat can put a huge strain on the cardiovascular system, which may lead to fatal heart attacks.
In one of the studies reported by The Guardian in October 2019, Dr Dan Alter, professor of cardiology and head of research at Oslo University Hospital, said:
“Young men have a very low incidence of heart attacks yet hundreds of them are dying every year in Qatar attributed to cardiovascular causes. The clear conclusion that I draw from this as a cardiologist is that these deaths are caused by deadly heatstroke. Their bodies cannot take the heat stress they are being exposed to.”Dan Alter
Indians in Qatar: The Numbers
On 11 February this year, the Union Minister of State (External Affairs) V Muraleedharan told the Parliament that "at least 1,665 Indians have died while working in Qatar in the last five years." These include natural as well as unnatural deaths.
A 2021 report in The Guardian pointed out that 2,711 Indian migrant workers have died in Qatar in the last 10 years.
Meanwhile, FIFA’s Deputy General Secretary Alasdair Bell on 13 October 2022 said that there has been clear progress in improving human and labour rights in Qatar, and that FIFA has been very active in this process.
This is a combined effort to improve the standards and the FIFA World Cup was also an important catalyst to change legislation positively in QatarAlasdair Bell, Deputy General Secretary, FIFA
“This is a combined effort to improve the standards and the FIFA World Cup was also an important catalyst to change legislation positively in Qatar,” Bell said, asserting that their efforts have also been recognized by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC).
The Quint spoke to workers who have left their homes in India to find work in Qatar in the last 10 years, the challenges they faced while working in the Gulf nation, and if reforms introduced by the Qatari government have made their lives easier on the field. The Quint also spoke to labour experts, and families of those Indian migrant workers who died there in the last decade.
How Is Qatar Treating Its Migrant Workers?
According to a report in The Guardian published in February 2021, more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar in the last 10 years.
It was in 2010 that FIFA chose Qatar to host the 2022 football world cup.
The data from the report shows that a total of 5,927 migrant workers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka died in Qatar in the period 2011-2020. Meanwhile, data from Pakistan’s embassy in Qatar shows that 824 Pakistani migrant workers died from 2010-2020.
Hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar had embarked on an unprecedented expansion of infrastructure projects, which has led to the Gulf country employing hundreds of workers from southeast Asian countries.
It is difficult to directly link the deaths of migrant workers working on infrastructure projects awarded by FIFA since death records are not classified according to occupation.
Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Migrant Rights.org, have criticised Qatar for alleged human rights abuse, while non-profit human rights organisation FairSqaure Projects castigated the country for not counting those workers who have collapsed and died on construction sites due to unfavourable work environment.
No cause of death means no answers for families, who are left “devastated and confused” and no scope for assessment of whether working conditions contributed to death, which could open the door to compensation. Why is this happening?FairSqaure Projects
At least 37 migrant worker deaths are directly linked to construction of World Cup Stadiums, of which, 34 have been classified as ‘non-work related’, The Guardian claimed in its February 2021 report.
Poor Living Conditions, Neglect
Shravan, who used to work as a timekeeper in the same company as his father, told The Quint that the living conditions were sub-standard for workers such as them.
“We were four-six people in one small room. There were community bathrooms, and we would have to wait for long hours before we could use them. We were given two meals a day. We were not given a health card, so in case of any illness, we’d have to visit the small health clinic in the premises, which did not have any specialty doctors,” said Shravan.
Contesting the official post-mortem report of his father which mentions cardiac arrest as the cause of death, Shravan said that his father was in good health when he left for Qatar, and it was toiling in the heat that took his life.
“After his duty got over, he was coming to the camp, but he collapsed,” an inconsolable Shravan said, worrying that the half-constructed house his father left back home will never be completed now.
Then there was 37-year-old Ramoji Rade from Dabba village in Telangana, who used to work as a cleaner for a TV Broadcasting company in Qatar. He too suffered a similar fate. “After duty hours, he was waiting to go to the camp, when he collapsed in front of the company gate. By the time, they arrived with first-aid, he was already dead,” Ramoji’s wife Sujata Rade told The Quint.
Although cardiac arrest was the official reason given, Sujata said that Ramoji was working for nearly 12 hours, sometimes even doing double shifts, especially when the COVID-19 was at its peak. This increase in workload happened as many workers returned home during the pandemic.
Making Rs 200 for every 1,000 beedis she rolls, Sujata is worried about the education and future of her children -- 17-year-old Somya and 13-year-old Sai Charan. Although she did receive Ramoji's exit service benefits within a year of his death, Sujata said that the money was used in paying off debts.
Swadesh Parkipandla, President of Pravasi Mithra Labour Union in Telangana has been working to facilitate migrant workers in Qatar. His organisation works towards making the workers aware of their rights, helps in their safe and orderly migration, and aids in resolving social and domestic issues among the families of the workers.
"Compensation should be paid for who lost their lives in Qatar irrespective of cause of death. Every migrant labour is working directly or indirectly serving for FIFA's infrastructure boost. FIFA and the Qatari government should create a fund for compensation for death and injured persons."Swadesh Parkipandla, President, Pravasi Mithra Labour Union, Telangana
Migrants rights activist Rejimon Kuttappan told The Quint, “Compared to other Gulf countries, Qatar has done a lot of reforms in the Kafala system.”
The Kafala system is a sponsorship-based employment, which legally binds the worker to their employer. It is practised in the six gulf countries and Jordan and Lebanon. Global trade unions say that it is a bonded labour system, where the worker is tied to the employer – their freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and freedom of associations is curtailed, Kuttappan said.
Until recently, it prevented the workers in Qatar from switching jobs or even going back to their native country without the permission of their employer, or the kafeel (sponsor), trapping them in a cycle of abuse, Amnesty International has claimed in a report published in October 2020.
“But, following FIFA awarding the football contract to Qatar, the country has made a lot of reforms in Kafala, and workers are being taken care of well. Workers’ accidents are happening, rights exploitation is also being reported. But, not to the level of what is happening in other Gulf countries,” Kuttappan said.
Kerala-based Rejimon Kuttappan is an an independent journalist and a migrant rights defender. He was Chief Reporter for the Times of Oman until he was deported back to India in 2017, for exposing human trafficking and modern slavery in the Arab Gulf through a front-page news story, according to his LinkedIn bio.
Kuttappan said that during the peak of the pandemic, whilst fighting the outbreak and the downfall of the economy, Qatar, as well as other countries, repatriated the workers with unpaid wages, and/or without giving them their end-of-service-benefits.
“I still have cases of workers pleading and complaining to the existing grievance redressal mechanisms to get their salaries and end-of-service benefits from their employers. There are issues but issues in other Gulf countries, especially in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait, are graver. Things are better after FIFA awarded the World Cup to Qatar,” the migrants rights activist said.
Reforms in Qatar: Hope in Sight for Migrant Workers?
In 2015, Qatar introduced the wage protection system under which companies were mandated by the government to pay their workers electronically. This allowed the government to detect irregularities in wages paid to workers and stop wage theft.
In 2017, Qatar signed an agreement with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to work on reforms which include the sponsorship system, workers’ voice, health and safety, access to justice and recruitment.
As a part of this, several legislations were passed including setting up of Labour Dispute Committees and establishing a Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund.
In 2018, Qatar ended the ‘exit permit’ system for most workers, which means that the beneficiaries could now leave the country without seeking permission from their employer.
Domestic workers, however, were not included in the purview of this legislation until 2019, when the exit permit was abolished for them as well.
In 2020, Qatar ended the requirement of a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) allowing workers to change jobs without their employers’ permission. The Gulf nation also introduced a new mandatory minimum wage.
In May 2021, Qatar strengthened its laws to protect workers from heat stress. Under the new legislation, workers were prohibited from being outdoors between 10 am and 3.30 pm from 1 June to 15 September.
Better Standards of Living Now?
Naveen Sakali, 32, from Nirmal district in Telangana, has been working in Qatar for 18 months now. He works as a garden construction worker for a company working on a football stadium.
He told The Quint that he has now shifted to Labour City, the newly-opened camp for migrant workers, and has been living there for over a month.
There are four people in one room. The room is air-conditioned. There is a community washroom. We get three meals in a day, the food is good. We have not faced any issue here so farNaveen Sakali, Migrant Worker
He earns 1300 QR (approximately Rs 30,000) per month for working eight hours a day cutting grass and maintaining the football grounds. Satisfied with his job in Qatar, Sakali sends home money to his wife, who rolls beedis back in Telangana, and their two daughters.
“We have been provided with health cards. Our medical treatment is also free, and the company pays for the commute,” he said.
Emsum Devdas, 41, had a similar story to tell. He has been working in Qatar for over a year as a grass cutter for one of the firms working on football grounds.
Satisfied with the overall living and working conditions, he told The Quint, “During the four summer months of June, July, August and September, we were asked to work at night so as to minimise our exposure to the heat. We used to work from 1 am to 10 am.”
He said that he has received his salary regularly between the 5th and 10th of every month, and faced no issue during the peak of the pandemic.
Human Rights Organisations Disagree?
“While it is important to recognise the changes that have taken place, it is equally important to recognise the insufficient implementation of reforms on ground,” Isobel Archer, Gulf Programme Manager, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, told The Quint.
She said that since workers largely remain unaware of these reforms and the rights that they are entitled to, they are left at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.
Archer asserted that the power structure ensures that control is with the employer. “Non-payment of wages is the most frequent issue that workers file complaints about. When workers retaliate, employers file ‘absconding charges’ against them, which consequently leads to such workers facing arrest or deportation,” she said.
Archer claimed that there still are fundamental barriers to access of redressal mechanisms, and that many settlement arguments have not come to fruition. She agreed, however, that workers employed with FIFA’s projects faced less abuse than others.
Hosting of the World Cup in Qatar has definitely improved the standards of labour, even though its beneficiaries are a very small minority. The bigger question is what will happen to these heightened standards after the World Cup is over? Will they be extended to workers across sectors in Qatar?Isobel Archer, Gulf Programme Manager, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre
FIFA Workers Left Poorer Than They Came: Amnesty
In June 2020, Amnesty International had revealed that around 100 employees of Qatar Meta Coats, a design and construction company subcontracted for work on Al Bayt Stadium, had not been paid for up to seven months and were owed between 8,000 QR ( approx. Rs 1,80,000) and over 60,000 QR ( approx. Rs 13,51,000) in salaries and allowances.
The company had also failed to renew employees’ residence permits, leaving them at risk of detention and deportation.
A similar situation was reported by workers of Mercury MENA, an engineering and mechanical contractor which was responsible for the construction of a 500-seat showcase stadium with state-of-the-art cooling technology, central to Qatar’s winning presentation to FIFA, in December 2010.
Workers have alleged that the company did not issue them residence permits, stopped paying salaries and did not allow the workers to leave the country or find a new job, and thus, a new sponsor. As a result, many of the workers accumulated debt and eventually ended up leaving Qatar for their native countries poorer than they came, Amnesty International has reported.
Accepting that more needed to be done, Bell had said that FIFA was working with Qatar to ensure that FIFA World Cup 2022 leaves a legacy in terms of workers’ rights.
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Topics: Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup
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