Nepali workers building World Cup infrastructure in Qatar continue to be exploitedSix years since a Guardian report exposed wholesale exploitation of migrant workers, an investigation by a German outlet shows the abuse has continued unabated
Qatar’s appalling treatment of migrant workers, a significant number of whom are Nepalis, has surfaced once again in an investigation by a German broadcaster.
An investigative report by Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln (WDR), a German public broadcaster, published on June 6, outlines the dreadful conditions of Nepali migrants working on the construction of numerous stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup to be held in Qatar. The migrant workers were discovered, once again, to be living without money or food, in cramped spaces and prison-like conditions.
Benjamin Best, a WDR journalist, had entered Qatar in May with a hidden camera to explore the conditions of tens of thousands of workers who are building facilities for the World Cup.
In a 16-and-a-half-minute video, Nepali migrants speak of how they haven’t been paid in months and have no food or proper shelter. Their passports were confiscated by their employers so they are not able to leave the country, resulting in virtual captivity. The conditions outlined in the report show squalid conditions with 200 workers sharing a toilet and as many as eight of them living in a dark, small room.
Photo Courtesy: Benjamin Best
According to Dil Prasad, one of the Nepali workers interviewed in the video, there are 125 Nepali workers in Qatar who are trapped there like “prisoners”.
“Every day, we only eat bread and drink water; without money, we can’t afford anything else. Month after month, our situation is getting worse,” Dil Prasad says in the video.
“I can’t do it anymore. I just want to go home. I can’t even call my family in Nepal. If only the company would pay us the money we deserve.”
These workers have been working on World Cup projects for Design Maintenance, a sub-contractor for the Al Thumama Stadium, which is a 40,000-seat stadium located 12 kilometres south of Doha, the capital city.
The small Gulf emirate is building nine new stadiums and renovating three others for the FIFA World Cup, arguably the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza. Since winning the hosting rights in 2010, the Gulf nation has come under severe criticism for the exploitation of its nearly two-million-strong migrant labour force.
In 2013, an investigation by the British Guardian newspaper had uncovered similar working and living conditions of migrant workers, calling them World Cup ‘slaves’. The Guardian report had predicted that at current rates of death, the construction of all the FIFA stadiums would leave 4,000 migrant workers dead.
Photo Courtesy: Benjamin Best
The latest revelation by WDR has shown that nothing much has changed for the workers on the ground, despite assurances from the Qatari government to improve working conditions for migrant workers.
“The Qatari government made a lot of promises over the years since [Guardian’s revelations], and I wanted to see for myself how the situation is for workers. What I found speaks for itself," Best, the WDR journalist, told the Post in an email from Munich.
"There have been some changes in Qatar concerning the situation of migrant workers. But the conditions I saw in Qatar were very bad and were slave-like conditions. No salary, confiscated passports, hardly any food,” he said.
Other Nepali workers interviewed for the report also narrate similar conditions. Adi Gurung, a migrant worker from eastern Nepal, said that he and dozens of other Nepalis had not been paid for the last eight months.
“Since November, the company boss told us again and again that our salary would arrive. He kept asking us to be patient. In the beginning, we believed him and kept on working. In March, after four months without money, we stopped working,” Gurung says in the video.
When they kept demanding their salaries, says Gurung, the employer refused to pay them and asked the workers to switch to another company.
“He [the boss] said we should go to another company, but this is not possible without our papers. For this reason, we appealed to the labour court. But nothing happened,” Gurung says in the video.
Gurung has not been able to send back any money to his wife and two kids, who are now facing difficulties without steady remittance.
“Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to be dead. We need to be rescued from the situation because this is also about our families in Nepal,” said Gurung.
The migrants pointed to the Nepal Embassy in Qatar and the Labour Court for not doing enough for them.
The Nepali Embassy in Doha, however, said that it was aware of the workers’ situation.
“The matter had reached the embassy nearly three months ago,” Narendra Raj Gyanwali, labour attache at the Nepali Embassy, told the Post over the phone. “We had called the owner of the company and the matter was discussed between the workers, the embassy and the employer.”
During the discussion, the employer had agreed to pay the salaries due and had asked all workers to return to work. However, the employer only promised to pay a month’s salary immediately while the employees had demanded all their dues, said Gyanwali.
As the matter was not resolved through negotiations, workers had filed a complaint at Qatar’s Department of Labour, which then forwarded the grievance to the Qatari Labour Court.
“While the workers are demanding clearance of all dues, the company says it will await the labour court’s decision,” said Gyanwali.
Gyanwali, however, said that many workers had already returned to Nepal after the company provided them with an air ticket and some money.
“There are many Nepali workers who have worked for the company, from two years to as long as 15 years. Their dues are huge, which the company has said cannot be cleared at once,” said Gyanwali. Out of 150 workers, only 15-20 workers now remain in Qatar, he said.
However, WDR journalist Best contradicted Gyanwali’s claims, saying that he’d been told that most of the workers remain in Qatar and that those who returned had paid for their own tickets. He was told that only 11 Design Maintenance workers had gone back to Nepal at the time he was reporting in Doha.
“The company did not pay for the return flights and the company did not pay the remaining salary,” he said.
Photo Courtesy: Benjamin Best
Nepal receives billions of rupees every year as remittance from migrant labour, but at the cost of its citizens. Between 2008-2018, a total of 6,708 Nepalis, who had migrated for foreign employment, died in 34 host countries. Such deaths are alarmingly high in the Gulf and in Malaysia, where over 86 percent of the Nepali migrant labour force is concentrated.
Despite being one of the most preferred job destinations for Nepali migrant workers, Qatar, which hosts nearly 500,000 Nepali workers, has remained a hostile destination for migrant workers. Reports of exploitation of Nepali workers have been frequent over the years. A total of 1,426 Nepali workers died in Qatar between 2009-2019, according to official figures.
For Nagendra Yadav, who was interviewed in Nepal for the WDR report, Qatar remains an unpleasant experience.
“We were afraid for our safety, especially at high altitudes. Two workers died in the stadium before my eyes. We were in shock. We refused to continue working. But the superior forced us,” says Yadav, who worked for Tawasol Group Qatar, a sub-contractor on the Al Bayt Stadium project.
“Another time, seven workers were beaten for no reason at the Tawasol office. When we were sick, we were not allowed to stay in bed. We were punished by being forced to stay in the heat,” he says.