Several thousand migrant workers from India and Nepal have died in Qatar since the country was controversially awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Last year in Qatar, a migrant worker from Nepal died every two days.
More than a third of those who died fell victim to alleged heart attacks, but Qatar is withholding many details about these incidents, as the nation prepares to host the world's most popular sporting event.
Three months ago, Qatar promised to investigate the causes of the rising number of deaths among migrant workers, and to introduce new laws in early 2015 to protect workers better, including reforms to its Kafala system — a state-sponsored system by which a worker is tied indefinitely to his Qatari employer, restricting the laborer's movements.
Over the past two years, however, despite promises to the contrary, Qatar has not published or collected statistics about deaths or injuries among migrant workers. As a result, many fear Qatar's latest promises are also empty. For this reason Qatar's first Workers Welfare Compliance Report in December, wherein the nation claimed to have improved living accommodations for migrant workers while creating special forums to bring contractors and workers together to discuss problems, was showered with skepticism.
The controversy over laborers’ safety has added to calls for FIFA — already weathering a storm of corruption allegations connected to the 2022 World Cup — to take the tournament away from Qatar and move it elsewhere.
Warning: the video embedded below about the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar's construction industry contains graphic images, including footage of dead bodies being returned to Nepal.
— Cries fromthe depths (@Criesfromdepths) July 12, 2014
A UK-based Trade Union lawyer and member of The Labour Party's National Executive Committee tweeted her indignation:
6 o'clock news reports that migrant workers in Qatar still living in squalid conditions with passports confiscated under kefala. Outrageous.
— ellie reeves (@elliereeves) February 23, 2015
Suryanath Mishra, Nepal's last Ambassador to Qatar, who was recalled from her stint in Doha for denouncing working conditions of Nepalis there as akin to an ‘open jail‘, reiterated a demand to launch an investigation into the causes of the deaths.
Mishra is also pushing for an increase in the rate of pay for Nepali workers there: while Qatar is spending over $200 billion on the World Cup, many Nepalis are either not being paid, or earning considerably less than a dollar a day.
Without high expectations of change, poverty-stricken families in remote villages of the landlocked Asian country will continue to find themselves the recipients of red coffins, shipped back like presents containing the carefully wrapped corpses of their loved ones.
Warning: this article recounting the plight of migrants’ families, contains distressing and graphic images.
Fifa’s declining accountability and credibility
With a pending report on allegations of corruption in the bidding process to be released by FIFA this year, it is not surprising that many doubt the organisation and its promise to monitor this situation:
A comical FIFA voting sheet quite scarily v.close to reality as their corruption model no longer requires discretion pic.twitter.com/43bcg1usDp
— Dave Waters (@DaveWaters_) February 25, 2015
The article tweeted below was shared over 3,000 times, mocking the decision to hold a World Cup in winter and strongly hinting at corruption within Fifa.
— Grumpeegit Skinner (@grumpeegit) February 25, 2015
Some are calling for a boycott of the games along with messages against the President of Fifa, Joseph Blatter:
— The Boycott Cup (@theboycottcup) March 1, 2015
Nepal's inability to help
Qatar has 1.4 million migrants, of which 400,000 are Nepali workers. But besides periodic criticism, there does not seem to be much that the Nepalese embassy, opened in Doha in 2000 and presently lacking a chief of mission, can offer to stranded Nepali workers.
Almost a decade on from a Maoist insurgency which raged from 1996 to 2006, Nepal is still struggling to create an environment where the vast majority of people in the country can access a sustainable livelihood. Poverty has triggered a trend in labour migration that began as a trickle in the 1990s but boomed after the turn of the millennium. Nepal's Foreign Employment Act of 2007 sought to control migration outflows to ensure the safety of workers.
A report submitted by Nepal to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reveals that despite the creation of multiple mechanisms — a Migrant’s Welfare Fund to provide for families of workers in case of death or injury; the use of government-licensed agencies to recruit migrants; a labour desk to verify the authenticity of a migrant’s permit and a Department of Foreign Employment charged with regulating recruiting agencies, investigating and mediating workers complaints and frauds — migrants working abroad are still vulnerable.
Grievances are rarely passed on to the Department of Foreign Employment. Shockingly, at the time the report was submitted, the Department had no data from any embassy or consular office. Moreover, the Foreign Employment Promotion Board mandated to rescue stranded migrants has only done so on the few occasions mentioned in its annual report.
What the Nepalese government has done systematically, is maintain a record of the dead, note causes of death and allocate money for compensation and repatriation costs. This will not improve living conditions for Nepalese working migrants, nor will it stem the flow of citizens seeking work in the Gulf.
If Nepalis were to be physically stopped from leaving their struggling economy to find work abroad ‘Nepal would explode’ according to one economist at the Asian Development Bank.
This is why Tristan Bruslé, a researcher who has delved in depth into the study of Nepali migrants working in the Gulf and Qatar in particular, has argued that it is the responsibility of the Qatari government as well as companies to ensure that those who are contributing to the riches of the country are given fair treatment. He has also pointed out that Nepalese migrants, who may not know how to read or speak English, are extremely vulnerable in the Kafala system.
One video, Qatar's World Cup, by Bluefoot Entertainment, follows several Nepali migrants from the time they arrive in Qatar to the tragic moment when their coffin is returned to their communities.
Warning: video contains highly distressing graphic images.
Comments on the video range from the expected to the less expected:
What are the Human Rights bodies doing about this situation? They seem so concerned about how terrorists are treated in prison and for an issue as big as this they seem to be absconding…
Why is FIFA quiet abt this matter? Do Blatter and Qatar think that they won't manage for 2022 if Kafala system is put out? No autopsy on the dead bodies, the Kafala system, no Trade Unions….. no Rights at all. Human rights organisation should come more stronger and Qatar better arrange good conditions for its workers. This noise will only get louder when the death toll will grow and might become a disaster for Blatter, FIFA, Qatar and all football lovers.
However, not everyone agrees that Qatar is to blame. One viewer, Diana Lopez, felt it was the migrants’ fault:
The claim about bad living conditions has been falsely blamed on Qatar. The only reason why the camps are so unhygienic is because people don't clean after themselves. If the people don't clean after themselves, who else will? Should Qatar hire another bunch of workers to clean the camps of other fellow workers? Then who will clean the camps of the workers that clean for other workers? It's a loop which can only be broken if they decide to clean after themselves.
We need the teams to refuse to play. That is the only way change will happen.
That sentiment is echoed by others including the Senior Editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, Daniel Altman, who believes that the only people who would be able to bring collective pressure to bear on Fifa are players, through their representative, Fifpro.
So far the organisation has spoken out against the Kafala system, without mentioning a boycott.
“Abolishing the kafala system is a human rights issue that needs to be addressed as it affects all workers, including the professional footballers who ply their trade in Qatar,” Fifpro said last month.
In the meantime, a petition to ‘Free Qatar's Modern Slaves‘ is looking for a million signatures. As of now it has over 800,000.
But would signing it make a difference?
Some argue that the World Cup is only a step towards a much greater development plan for Qatar for which multinational companies such as Siemens have been quick to sign up. Siemens has in fact been granted an $8.2 billion contract to build the ambitious new metro system in Doha while companies from France and Britain have been awarded contracts for construction and consulting. Vested interests are everywhere.
Finally, ordinary Nepalis may reflect on the fact that last week's closure of the country's only international airport in Nepal due to a crash-landed Turkish Airlines flight, which led to thousands of ticket cancellations, might have saved a few lives. For those who took the decision to buy another one and head to Qatar, one can only guess when and how they will return.