“Modern-day slavery”: that is the phrase that The Guardian uses to describe the brutal working and living conditions endured by Nepalese migrant laborers who are building facilities for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The emirate is spending some $100 billion, and recruiting 1.5 million workers to build stadiums, roads, ports and hotels for the millions of soccer devotees, officials and others expected to attend the event.
There has been a lot of talk “about the effect of Qatar’s extreme heat on a few hundred footballers,” Umesh Upadhyaya, general secretary of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, says. As he also points out, most “are ignoring the hardships, blood and sweat of thousands of migrant workers, who will be building the World Cup stadiums in shifts that can last eight times the length of a football match.”
90 percent of the Qatar’s workforce is comprised of immigrants. Of these, 40 percent of migrant laborers are Nepalese. A total of 340,000 Nepalese workers are currently in Qatar, some 100,000 of whom came there in 2012. The funds they send back home are crucial for Nepal’s economy. According to the World Bank, remittances from migrant workers in Qatar accounted for 22 percent of Nepal’s economic output, a figure that is expected to arise.
Nepalese workers at Qatari construction sites have described being forced to work in 50 degrees Celsius heat (about 122 degrees Fahrenheit) while being denied access to free drinking water and sleeping twelve to a room in “repulsive” conditions. They have been forced to work without pay and even without food and their passports have been confiscated. Employers have refused to issue ID cards to laborers and prevented them from leaving their place of work.
Between June 4 and August 8, documents obtained from the Nepalese embassy in Doha reveal that at least 44 workers (some young men who suffered heart attacks) died. That is, at least one Nepalese worker died a day last summer.
The Nepalese ambassador to Qatar, Maya Kumari Sharma, recently described the country as an “open jail” for Nepalis, 30 of whom have sought refuge at the embassy in Doha. After making her comments, Sharma was summoned back to Nepal.
At an October 1 press conference in Doha, Mohammad Ramadan, a legal adviser for Nepali nationals in Qatar, insisted that all the workers are “safe and fully respected.” Ali bin Samikh Al-Marri, chairman of Qatar’s national human rights committee, criticized The Guardian’s report for exaggerating numbers and stated that “there is no slavery or forced labor in Qatar.”
Nonetheless, Ramadan referred in his statement to data from the Nepal embassy, according to which 20 percent of the 276 Nepalese workers who died in Qatar in 2012 have been killed at building sites.
While Qatar has laws protecting workers’ rights on the books (it prohibits employers from confiscating passports and bans illegal recruitment fees), the reality is that these laws are not being enforced, as Human Rights Watch notes, in no small part because of the business community’s opposition to addressing workers’ rights.
Executives for FIFA are meeting this week in Zurich to discuss workers’ safety on 2022 World Cup projects. Such a meeting is more than warranted amid reports of similar abuses about migrant workers in Sochi, Russia to build facilities for the 2014 Olympics.
Sports fans need to know that, to build soccer and other athletic facilities, workers exhibiting stamina and exerting themselves physically as much as any athlete have been injured and even died. Unlike the athletes who crowds will clamor to see at the 2022 World Cup, the exploits of migrant workers from a country far from Qatar will not be noted, let alone celebrated.
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