DOHA, Qatar— A bright red coffin arrives at Tribhuvan International Airport in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu. It sits among suitcases, duffle bags and cardboard boxes that circle along the conveyor belt of baggage claim. Relatives arrive, eyes stricken with tears, and claim the coffin as their own: the young man who had gone off to work in Qatar has finally returned.
The sight is no longer uncommon in Nepal. Relatives cry, outraged and disheartened at the unceremonious handing back of their own. Funeral rites are even conducted at airports now, proceeding seamlessly from the airport back to the village of the deceased.
According to the Nepalese government, 366 Nepalese have died of unexplained heart failure while working as migrant laborers in Qatar between mid-2006 and April 2014. Qatari government officials blame natural causes; statistically, they say, it’s normal.
But most humanitarian organizations and independent observers believe that the harsh working conditions laborers face, including slavery in Qatar, has produced such numbers.
Qatar, the tiny Arab country known for its riches and plentiful reserves of natural gas, will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The announcement faced public outcry: How would players survive in the heat of a desert nation where summer temperatures — on average — exceed 100 degrees? More importantly, at the time of the decision, Qatar lacked the infrastructure necessary to host such a hugely popular event.
But the country — amid accusations of bribery and an ongoing FIFA investigation that could result in a re-vote — has undertaken an enormous construction project, building towers, stadiums and roads for the tournament that is now only eight years away.
To fuel such an ambitious venture, however, Qatar has not relied on its citizens but hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers. In fact, of the nation’s population of 2.2 million, close to 90 percent of them are foreign workers.
In theory, the prospect of working in Qatar for decent wages seems promising for immigrants, who mostly hail from South Asia. But the Kafala sponsorship system that ropes workers into Qatar also chains them to an uncertain fate.
Under the system, workers can only leave the country or change jobs with the consent of their employer. They are stripped of their passports and live in squalid labor camps. Hours are not chosen — most work 8 to 10 hours a day — and no refuge is given to workers from the sweltering summer heat.
Workers are essentially indentured servants, tied by a contract to work for an employer for a certain period, usually two or five years, before they can travel home or change jobs.
The Tower of Football
The city of Doha’s al-Bidda skyscraper looms over all else. A mirrored construction of steel and glass that sleekly twists toward the sky, its 38th and 39th floors — luxury offices built by Lee Trading and Contracting — served as a temporary headquarters for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup organizers.
But, as a recent Guardian investigation revealed, those offices were built by migrant workers who have yet to be paid after 13 months.
The project was headed by Katara Projects, a Qatar government organization, which terminated its contract with Lee Trading upon learning of worker mistreatment. The government has compensated many of the workers.
However, workers say that up to 13 remain stranded in the country, five of whom were arrested because they lack identification papers. Some have resorted to the court to find compensation or — at the very least — a way to return home, but unpaid workers have become so poor, the taxi fare needed to travel to court has proven too costly.
Qatar, under international pressure, has agreed to make reforms. According to officials, outdoor work during the summer between 11:30 AM and 3:00 PM is now banned. Also, companies must set up bank accounts for their workers and pay them electronically within two days or else face a government penalty. There are also talks of establishing an electronic complaint system and building additional housing for up to 150,000 workers.
In May, Qatar announced that the infamous Kafala system would come to an end.
These reforms, however, have yet to be strictly enforced — and the root of the problem, the Kafala system, has yet to be abolished.
So far, about 1000 workers have died working on World Cup construction from unexplained illnesses, dehydration, mysterious heart attacks and even suicide. Analysts project that 4,000 workers will have died by the time the World Cup commences in 2022.
But, despite such obvious dangers, workers continue to stream into Qatar, since if they do get paid, it means survival for their families back home.
According to Qatar Central Bank data, in 2012 alone, $13.5 billion of remittance income — money sent by a foreign worker to his or her homeland — was reported.
– Shehrose Mian