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
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.

But what does Qatar’s workforce, largely made up of migrants from the poorest regions of India, Nepal and Bangladesh, make of the labour regime? I interviewed over twenty-five labourers at the Barawa camp, and found a striking generational gap between the fatalism of older workers such as Ansari, who is in his late thirties, and the disillusionment and higher expectations among younger workers such as Khan, who is barely in his twenties. He had only been in Qatar for six months, but was already planning to return home. “Our India also has jobs now,” he said.

The two men have similar backgrounds. Both emigrated from impoverished regions after paying large sums to agents. “I had to sell my goats to get here,” Ansari told me. They are both electricians working on Doha’s proposed metro system, earning the same salary and sleeping next to each other on iron cots in the labour camp. But their attitudes about what workers deserve for sculpting Qatar were vastly different.

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

Keywords: 2022 FIFA World Cup Kafala Barawa modern slavery Qatar South Asia migration migrant workers Doha reforms
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