Qatar has come under immense criticism over the deaths of hundreds of foreign workers at FIFA 2022 World Cup venues. It’s pledged reforms, but whats happening on the ground? Anchal Vohra reports from Qatar.On a mid-summer afternoon workers are carving out a diamond in the desert, at least that’s what the Education City Stadium is designed to be. It is expected to host 40,000 football fans and be ready by 2019.
On July 28, DW saw over a dozen workers at work here between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., hours designated as a rest period by the state of Qatar between June 15 and August 31, the hottest time of the year.
While experts argue there should not be any work during the day in the harsh summers — when temperatures can rise to 50 Celsius — Qatar itself has banned work during these three-and-a-half hours accepting they are unfit to work. And yet, DW witnessed a clear breach of law even during the tiny window of reprieve for the workers.
Hundreds, if not thousands, have died while at work. In 2012, 520 workers died in Qatar and over 300 of those deaths remain unexplained. Qatar says workers have died for reasons unrelated to working conditions, such as heart attacks or respiratory failures, but human rights bodies say these are euphemisms for heat-related deaths and argue that Qatar doesn’t provide autopsy reports with the aim of hiding the real reasons.
Read more: Workers in Qatar face harsh conditions
Nicholas McGeehan, an expert on migrant workers’ rights in the gulf who has researched workers’ deaths for Human Rights Watch, was astonished at DW’s findings. He sees the violation at a FIFA-linked stadium to be even more serious because FIFA projects are governed by the Supreme Delivery and Legacy Committee, which promises higher standards of welfare for its workers, much more than other contractors. “This incident suggests contractors are not even abiding by the very basic laws,” he told DW.
Activists have tried to highlight these health issues to the World Cup organizers. Despite those efforts, lapses continue and activists like McGeehan question if Qatar is serious about changing its attitude toward the work-force.
“Construction is a conspicuous business — it is visible and loud — so it is hard to believe they felt they could evade detection. The more plausible explanation is that they felt they would escape sanction, and if this is the case it calls into question not only the supreme committee’s ability to protect workers but its commitment to that endeavor.”
DW shared the video evidence with the Supreme Committee. They admitted that during these hours work is indeed prohibited and have promised an investigation. “We are concerned to see the evidence you have presented of work that appears to contravene Qatar’s summer working hours directive underway at the Education City Stadium. Our workers’ welfare department and health & safety teams, working with the relevant government bodies, are now conducting a thorough investigation. We will take corrective and punitive action in the event of any breach of our standards or the law.”
The Ministry for Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (ADSLA) responded to DW’s query and said that “over 400 labour inspectors form an important part of our strategy to ensure that Qatar protects its guest workers and continues to be a leader in the region with regards to labor reform.”
During DW’s visit, we were not given permission to go inside any of the world cup-related infrastructure because of the “short notice,” of our request, officials said.
Guest workers live in dormitories like those in the Barawa camp, a 45-minute drive from the Education City Stadium.
The engravings of tiny minarets on the off-white walls are the only elements that add some color to the monotonous appearance of the camp tucked far away from the locals.
Shrouded in dust, it has a mosque, a few restaurants to cater to the appetite of the South Asians and shops selling sim cards.
Authorities provide air-conditioned buses to transport the workers and have digitized the payment system. The workers in this camp acknowledge these changes and tell us that they get their monthly salaries on time, but are unhappy about the meager amount of 750 Rials ($200).
And the low living standards make it harder to survive the heat and humidity in Qatar.
Mohammed Akram and Wasim Khan* are sitting on a patch of grass littered with cigarette butts and empty coffee cups. They’re both from India and are working as electricians on Qatar Rail’s metro site.
‘A dog’s life is better’
Akram says he’s completely unaware of any reforms. He’s been working in the richest country in the world for 10 years and says except for the employer shifting him from a modular cabin to a concrete camp, nothing has changed for him even in the last two years since Qatar pledged reforms.
Read more: Five years to go until Qatar 2022: What we know so far
“We are seven in one room, even the food we get is stale,” he told DW, and seemed confused when DW asked him about his passport. “The employer confiscated it the moment we arrive. I am hearing from you for the first time that I can keep my passport.”
Qatar pledged to reform and abolish the so-called Kafala system which monitors workers. Critics say it restricts their freedom of movement and puts them at the mercy of their employers. A major part of the reform was supposed to ensure that the travel documents remain with the workers. In the Barawa camp, most workers say their passports remain confiscated.
Akram’s roommate, Wasim Khan, is already debating whether to pack his bags and go back to India. He arrived in Qatar six months ago and says life in the camp is unbearable.
“A dog’s life is better in my village,” he told DW. “I am drenched in sweat all day, its so hot that my head spins.”
Often, he has to fit electrical connections which means squeezing into a tiny space between the ceiling and the roof. “Then in the night, I have to share my room with six others, Why? I can earn half at home but live, not die.”
After talking to them, DW sent an email to Qatar Rail to ask why passports were still being confiscated and why seven people were forced to share one room. DW also asked how often labor inspectors have inspected the camp.
In response, a spokesman for Qatar Rail said, “we have started an internal review to determine if there has been any breach of the law. If found to be true, we will take the necessary corrective action.”
Promises galore, yet deaths continue
The Supreme Committee of Delivery and Legacy responsible for workers’ welfare on FIFA projects, as well as Qatar Railways, have committed to an investigation based on DW’s findings and promised action.
The ADSLA told DW that it has introduced a slew of changes including better housing, increased wages and the improvement of health services. And Houtan Homayunpour, the head of the the International Labour Organization’s office in Doha, told DW that “change is coming.”
But despite the promises, workers are continuing to die. Days after DW’s visit, a 23-year-old Nepalese worker was reported dead at the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar. According to one of the main contractors, the man fell to his death while carrying out scaffolding work.
*names changed to protect their identity.