‘It’s Like Jail Here’

Watching the World Cup finals in the labor camps of Qatar.


DOHA, Qatar — Half an hour before Germany faced off against Argentina in the World Cup final, Indra and his friend Kesar sit on the steps of the portacabin they share with eight other men. They watch as the gravel courtyard before them fills with soccer fans. Red and white construction safety tape divides the courtyard in half; paper signs marked "Argentina" and "Germany" hang at the entrances, directing each team’s fans to their section.

Hundreds of men wait in anticipation, seated on large squares of industrial carpeting or on the rocky ground. The pregame festivities are projected on a huge screen rigged out of construction scaffolding and plastic tarp, raised between two giant plastic water tanks. This labor camp in the Qatari desert houses roughly 200 men, but hundreds of workers from neighboring camps have poured in to watch the free screening of the final here.

Indra, a slight, 24-year-old man wearing a khaki T-shirt and shorts, left his town of Jhapa in the eastern Terai plains of Nepal for Qatar nearly four years ago. He started as a cleaner, he says, earning $150 a month — or roughly 60 cents an hour — for the last three years, before he was promoted. As he and Kesar, another Nepali worker with a permanent wry smile, wait for the match to begin, they are frank about the problems they have faced. Both men paid agents in Nepal about $1,100 to get their jobs; the agents told them they’d earn nearly twice the monthly salary they ended up receiving. They said it was pointless to complain about the broken salary agreement to their embassy, which would not do much to help them, and that they couldn’t get better-paying jobs because Qatari law didn’t let them. It took them over a year of work to pay off their loans.

"If the World Cup comes to Qatar in 2022, of course I’d welcome it," Indra said. "I want it to be here, but they should improve our conditions."

Indra and his friends are among the 1.3 million migrant workers in Qatar, mostly from South and Southeast Asia, who make up 94 percent of the country’s workforce and are often forced to work in dangerous and dismal conditions, without the ability to quit or change their jobs. Over the next eight years, it is the labor of migrants like them that will build eight new state-of-the-art stadiums from the ground up in preparation for the 2022 World Cup. They will pave the country’s roads and dig a $34 billion metro and rail system to transport fans around the country. They will raise dozens of new hotels, and they will wait upon the hundreds of thousands of soccer fans who will descend on the country in the cafes and restaurants yet to be built.

If the Cup, that is, actually makes it Qatar at all.

* * *

Over the past several months, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has faced increasing public pressure to move the tournament to another country. By the end of July, FIFA’s ethics committee is due to report back on corruption allegations surrounding Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup. It’s not only corruption but the conditions of workers in Qatar that have raised international criticism: The International Trade Union Confederation, a workers’ rights lobbying group based in Brussels, began a "Rerun the Vote" campaign in April 2013 asking for the World Cup to be moved from Qatar due to egregious labor rights violations. "More than 4,000 workers will die before a ball is kicked in 2022," General Secretary Sharan Burrow has repeatedly told the media.

Working in Qatar is dangerous business. The high temperature on the day of the World Cup final was a staggering 116 degrees Fahrenheit — and workers often toil for 12 or more hours a day, spending long periods in the glaring desert sun. Many survive on meager meals, while others say employers don’t provide them with proper drinking water. Labor camps can be overcrowded, some have broken air conditioning or irregular water and electricity supply, and some employers don’t even provide bedding or cooking equipment. According to official government data, the main cause of migrant worker deaths was "sudden cardiac arrest" — unusual among young and physically active men. Worker advocates have speculated that the combination of grueling working conditions and little rest have resulted in what Nepali migrants call the "sleeping death."

Indra knows well how risky it can be to depend on employers in Qatar. His brother suffered a serious kidney condition, causing his employers to send him back to Nepal because they had not purchased the health insurance coverage required by law. Unable to afford proper care, he died. Indra’s cousin also died, in a car accident on the job in Qatar — but the company did not provide them with death compensation, he said, though Qatari law requires them to do so. Yet he and Kesar fear that if the tournament is moved, the government will not deliver on its promises for labor reform. In particular, they say, they’re waiting for changes to the kafala, or sponsorship system. 

In mid-May, Qatari government officials held a press conference in which they announced that the country would soon abolish the kafala, which ties a worker’s legal residency to a single employer. If a worker quits or leaves without his employer’s permission, the employer must report him to the nearest police station for "absconding," which automatically cancels the worker’s visa. Human rights groups have criticized the system for enabling forced labor and perpetuating human trafficking.

Workers reported as absconding cannot simply purchase a plane ticket and head home. They need an exit permit from their employer; without one, they must go through deportation proceedings that can take months, sometimes years. Meanwhile, they have already paid huge recruitment fees back home to get their jobs, and face pressure to start paying off those debts immediately. "If I don’t start sending money, the [loan agents in Nepal] will take my house," Kesar explained. Their situation is hardly uncommon — according to a 2013 survey of nearly 1,200 workers in the country, low-income laborers paid on average over $1,000 to get their jobs in Qatar, often mortgaging family homes or selling their wives’ jewelry just to get there. It can take a year or more just to pay back the cost of getting these jobs, making their journey a huge gamble. These fees are illegal in Qatar, but workers continue to pay them.

"It’s like jail here," Kesar said. "The law forces us to do everything. They say, if you want to work, work, but if you don’t like anything, we can’t help you."

These feelings are not limited to low-wage workers: French soccer player Zahir Belounis spent nearly two years trapped in Qatar after he took a claim for unpaid wages against the owners of the local team he played for to court. In order to leave the country, he needed his employer’s permission. "I have been living a nightmare for several months because of the kafala system. This system is slowly killing me and many other people risk suffering in the same way," he wrote in an open letter to soccer stars Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola. 

* * *

In the stifling courtyard, World Cup fever is underway. Over 1,500 men have packed into the space — crowded on the ground, against the cinderblock line of toilet stalls, and perched on top of buses and the 8-foot-high perimeter wall. By 11 p.m., halftime has come and gone and it’s still 91 degrees. Men shake plastic bottles filled with gravel, and cheers in English, Arabic, Nepali, Hindi, and Vietnamese fill the air. The Germany and Argentina sections are equally packed, but Germany’s fans cheer louder. Somewhere, one of them has found a vuvuzela.

In the break before overtime, Mohammed Ibrahim, a 32-year-old construction worker and Germany supporter from Bangladesh, explains that he moved to Qatar because he’s such a huge World Cup fan. He admires Germany for the way they bulldozed Brazil in the semi-finals. "I used to work in Kuwait, but I had to leave, so I came here," he explains. "I didn’t think about any other place — I only wanted to come to Qatar, because of the World Cup."

Ibrahim paid about $3,900 to get to Qatar, yet he only earns $275 a month — half of the salary he made in Kuwait, and far less than he was told he’d make. Now, he’s cynical about prospects for improvement. "Whether the World Cup comes here or not, I don’t see any benefit to me," he says. "Maybe I’ll get to see a game or two, but that’s it."

Indra is more cautiously optimistic. "They announced they would change the sponsorship law. If they make the change, I’ll stay another 10 years. If not, I’ll go," he says.

No matter where the first ball is kicked off in 2022, workers in the world’s richest country will continue to suffer serious abuses of their rights unless the Qatari government follows through on its promises. Moving the tournament alone will not save their lives, nor will it protect them from the dangers and exploitation many currently face. "Even if there is no World Cup, development will never stop in Qatar," a Nepali migrant community organizer in Doha told me. "That is how people have to understand the problem."

In the game’s 113th minute, Germany’s Mario Götze collected a crossing pass in front of Argentina’s goal and, with one swift kick, buried the ball in the back of the net. The left side of the yard, Germany’s supporters, leapt up and erupted in long cheers. "Messi, khalas!" one Nepali fan yelled in Arabic — a message directed to Argentina’s star player, Lionel Messi, that "it’s over."

Soon enough, it was. After the winning goal, before the trophy celebrations had even begun, the men were streaming out of the courtyard; within minutes, it was mostly empty. It’s past 1 a.m., and they’ll have to wake up in less than five hours for another hard day of work.

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