Nine months. Twelve hours a day. And not a single day off. This is how workers describe the construction of a hotel in Doha. In a few months, thousands of football-mad tourists will be staying there in order to have the shortest possible distances to the World Cup stadiums. “In order to keep our working hours secret, we were prevented from signing out and clocking in. I was on the verge of insanity,” says one worker.
His account is part of a report recently released by the International Labor Rights Forum GLJ-ILRF, which documents the situation of migrant workers in Qatar hotels between 2020 and 2022.
Exploitation, discrimination, sexualised violence and health and safety risks – the list of “significant labor and human rights violations”, according to the report, is long. Workers are systematically denied basic rights, and many say they live in constant fear of losing their jobs or even being deported.
Wenzel Michalski from Human Rights Watch (HRW) also says: “Anyone who goes to the World Cup must assume that the waiter at breakfast in the hotel is very poorly paid and has to look after a desperately poor family. And he has to assume that the hotel was built by people in conditions similar to slavery, and that people even died in the process.”
Because after Qatar had been awarded the contract for the football World Cup, the emirate pounded the entire infrastructure out of the ground. The burden of this project was primarily borne by workers who came to Qatar as part of the kafala system from countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and had to work there under catastrophic conditions. According to Amnesty, they were exposed to extreme heat and housed in camp-type mass accommodation without access to adequate water supplies.
In the meantime, Qatar has introduced reforms, but in reality these often fail to be implemented, as reports show. At least 15,000 people have died in connection with the construction work since the World Cup was awarded.
This also has consequences for the families in the countries of origin, who often plunge into extreme poverty when their main breadwinner dies. “Although it is forbidden under Qatari law, many workers have to pay so-called job placement fees,” reports Michalski. “Sometimes that’s more than $1,000.” If a worker from Nepal dies on the construction site and hasn’t yet paid his dues, the family has to pay them. “That plunges many into misfortune.”
The horrendous fees are mainly due to the non-transparent private agencies. These cross-border companies are often the only way for many workers to help themselves and their families to earn a better living; however, their machinations are all too often nothing more than modern human trafficking.
“It’s a vicious circle,” says Michalski. The father goes to Qatar in the hope of earning enough money to enable his children to go to school so that they don’t end up in the same situation as he does – in vain. “He’s being exploited in Qatar, he can’t take care of the family and the children can’t go to school. The family remains in poverty.”
The most recent report by Human Rights Watch shows how serious the consequences can be, especially for children. This shows that families often have no choice but to marry off their children early or send them to work. HRW is therefore demanding that the Qatari government and Fifa set up a reparation fund.
This is intended to compensate not only families who have lost loved ones, but also workers who have been injured so badly that they are unable to work so that their children can go to school and they can support their families. “The DFB and other associations should support this demand,” demands Michalski. “Many associations are still too reserved in this regard, which is why it is so important that the DFB leads the way and that others can take this as an example.”
In some cases, reparations are already being paid by the Qatari government, from which some families have already benefited. “The problem is that these have only recently come into effect. The families of the men who died a few years ago will not be compensated.”
Countries of origin such as the Philippines or Nepal have already set up reparations funds, but it is difficult to make use of them. “Many don’t know anything about it or can’t cope with the bureaucratic hurdles because they haven’t had any schooling. For a long time, most documents in Qatar were only written in Arabic and not in the languages of the migrant workers.”
And there is something else: So far, Qatar has failed to comprehensively document and investigate the deaths. Instead, they are blamed on “natural causes” or heart attacks, which seems implausible given that the majority of those who died were young men.
Even in the case of people who died for “unexplained reasons”, conclusions can be drawn, says Michalski. “Many come back in the evening after working in extreme heat and don’t wake up the next morning, for example because they had heat stroke.” In such cases, it can be traced that they previously had to repair a roof at 42 degrees, for example . “So the family is entitled to compensation.”