Shifting Sands

The changing nature of Qatar’s exploitation of South Asian workers

01 October 2018
In 2014, the International Trade Union Confederation estimated that 1,200 workers had died since 2010, when Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup.
sam tarling / corbis / getty images

At the Barawa labour camp outside the Qatari capital of Doha, a small patch of grass has taken on an outsized significance. When I visited in late July, dozens of labourers were lying on a scrubby lawn, a novelty in Qatar’s desert landscape. The lawn was new, an attempt—ambitious or pathetic, depending on one’s viewpoint—to remind the camp’s occupants of home.

“My previous camps were barren, but a year ago they shifted me here,” Mohammad Ansari, an electrician from Bihar, told me. “The greenery is good for my heart.” His colleague Rahim Khan, who came here from Uttar Pradesh, disagreed. “This is it, then,” he said, plucking at a few blades. “This is FIFA’s gift to us.”

Qatar secured the rights to host the 2022 football World Cup in 2010 amid allegations of bribing FIFA officials. It has since embarked on a $200 billion infrastructure-building spree—including stadiums, roads, hotels, a new metro system for Doha and the planned city of Lusail. This has brought greater international scrutiny of its labour standards. In 2014, based on figures provided by the Indian and Nepali embassies, the International Trade Union Confederation estimated that 1,200 workers had died since Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010, and that 4,000 more would die before the tournament. There have been reports of long hours spent working outdoors in extreme temperatures for low pay, as well as of the confiscation of passports and abuse of travel rights by employers. In response, Qatar claims to have radically altered its labour laws and has invited the International Labour Organisation to oversee its improvements.

Anchal Vohra is a journalist who covers West Asia and Europe. She has also reported on South Asia for over a decade.