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  • Jordan Maharjan

Why I Won't Be Watching The Qatar World Cup: A South Asian Take

Across Qatar roars and cheers will be heard for miles as the world anticipates the 21st World Cup.

Photo Credit: New Europe. Activists pictured during a protest called ‘Red Card for FIFA’. Organised by the Swiss trade union (UNIA) in front of Hallenstadion, where the 65th FIFA congress takes place in Zurich (29 May 2015). Demonstrated asking FIFA to improve conditions for workers at the stadium's construction sites.

The international community will come together this weekend to spectate the most talented football players battling it out to be the next World Cup Winner. However, the quadrennial event that brings millions from tourism and international funding has overshadowed the dark underbelly of the decade-long exploitation of South Asian migrants that have built the stadiums people will play on, watch, and enjoy the games in. Through working in the desert heat, being trapped in loan debt and poor pay, South Asian migrants have been victims of neo-colonial power imbalances during the buildup of Qatar’s World Cup of Shame.

Historical Context

The use of South Asian labour in the global economy has been a tradition since the height of European imperialism—a period when Western powers sought to exploit the subjects of the empire through their labour. Following the abolition of slavery in Britain and its colonies in 1833, Indian indentured labourers were imported from the British-ruled sub-continent to their West Indian colonies (the Caribbean). This was done to fill the void created as a result of the mass exodus of ex-slaves from plantation labour. Guyana was the recipient of 239,000 East Indian migrants, Trinidad received 144,000 and Jamaica found itself with 36,000 migrants, just to name a handful of countries.

The system of indentureship is supposedly viewed as a “progressive” alternative to slavery. However, given the historical context, Hugh Tinker, a British historian suggests that the system itself was closely linked to slavery. This is especially true when examining the conditions the indentured servants faced with long working hours and low wages. Consequently, the physical conditions of the labourers after their long voyage and the poor conditions on the plantation farms led to the annual 12% mortality rate of Jamaica in 1970.

Photo Credit: Striking Women. Newly arrived indentured servants from South Asia to Trinidad in 1897.

Qatar's Use of South Asian Migrants

Whilst the formal system of indentureship ended in 1917, the colonial power imbalances have remained in full force and South Asian migrants have been the victims of exploitation during the construction of Qatari stadiums.

Many migrants from the subcontinent sought work in Qatar to escape poverty and unemployment in countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and India. Just like what happened in the system of indentureship, many were entangled in complex contracts and negotiations. The workers paid amounts spanning from US$500 to US$4300 to recruitment agents and spiralled into debt. Additionally, recruitment agents have made false promises about the salary workers will receive—one worker was promised US$300 a month in Nepal but turned out to be US$190 once he began working in Qatar. They are threatened with the removal of their VISA and sent back home if they question this, putting many in precarious positions of having to face poor pay or otherwise they will fail to pay back their debt.

Furthermore, more than 6500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since its announced right to host the World Cup. This comes as no surprise given the appalling working and living conditions workers are forced to face. Based on data obtained by the Guardian, 69% of deaths among Indian, Nepali, and Bangladeshi workers are categorised as ‘natural’. These classifications were usually made without an autopsy and often fail to provide a legitimate medical explanation for the underlying cause of death. However, in 2019 it was found that Qatar’s intense summer heat is likely to be a significant factor in many worker deaths. This was supported by research commissioned by the UN’s International Labour Organisation which revealed that for at least four months of the year, workers faced significant heat stress.

Photo Credit: ITV. A kitchen used by workers at a so-called 'labour camp' in Qatar.

Workers also lived in cramped, dirty, and unsafe conditions. Amnesty International [a human rights organisation] stated they saw men sleeping on bunk beds in rooms of eight or more people, despite the Qatari regulatory framework suggesting employers need to provide ‘suitable accommodation’ for employees, which the Workers’ Welfare Standards has interpreted allowing a maximum of four beds per room and barring bed sharing.

There is no escape from the horrors of their mistreatment—whenever workers have complained about the conditions and often attempt to seek help, they are intimidated and threatened by their employers. One migrant worker asked to go back to their home country because their pay is always late, but they were screamed at by their manager to “keep working or you will never leave!” This is because of Qatar’s ‘Kafala’ system of sponsorship-based employment which legally binds foreign workers to their employers.

Photo Credit: The Guardian. South Asian migrant construction workers working in the desert heat.

Mohammad, who maintains the green spaces in the Aspire Zone said “The company has my passport. If my sponsorship status changes they will send me back and I have a lot of debt to pay…, I want my passport back… [and] the camp is no good, there are eight of us in one room – it is too many. But I cannot complain [because] they will end my job.”

The Beneficiaries of the Exploitation

It comes as no surprise that the Qatari economy and institutions such as FIFA will benefit greatly at the expense of South Asian migrants. Qatar has spent at least US$220 billion on the World Cup. This is one of the most expensive World Cups in history.

Photo Credit: Statista. This bar chart exemplifies the astronomical spending on the Qatar World Cup compared to the previous World Cups. All the other countries following Qatar—when combined—only make up a fraction of the total costs compared to this year’s games.

Qatar states it is expecting 1.3 million World Cup visitors, and predicting revenue of US$1.56 billion from hosting. Not only this, Qatar has spent a large percentage of the funding on transportation such as US$36 billion on a metro system for Greater Doha, a new airport, extensive road construction, and telecommunications. As a result, Qatar is hoping for other benefits since this event—along with extensive infrastructure—will put Qatar on the proverbial world map, eventually boosting tourism, foreign trade, and investment.

Moreover, FIFA, the world's football governing body generates a huge revenue during the World Cup. In 2018, the Russian World Cup made FIFA more than US$4.6 billion. The winners of the Qatar World Cup will also receive US$44 million out of the total prize pot of US$440 million.

The soaring revenues that Qatar and FIFA will gain—along with bolstering international recognition and long-term growth, compared to the minuscule pay of South Asian migrants—exemplified huge disparities. It highlights the inequalities exacerbated between the Global South and Global North and brings attention to the exploitation faced by South Asian migrants in the Middle East as a whole.

Are the Reforms Doing Enough?

Reforms to labour laws have been made since Qatar was faced with international backlash. Since 2017 the government has passed several pieces of legislation to benefit migrant workers, including introducing a law for domestic workers, setting up a new labour dispute committee and establishing a workers’ support and insurance fund. In addition, in 2018 employers will no longer have the power to deny exit permits to most of their workers.

The reforms that have been implemented have been hailed by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Than, who suggested that their country has done enough to improve the situation of migrant workers. However, many beg the question, has it gone far enough?

Although migrant workers can leave their job as they wish, employers will still retain 5% of their workforce. Not only this, South Asian migrant workers are still tied to their employers who act as their “official” sponsor (kafeel) from the moment they enter the country, ultimately ‘owned’ by their employer. Migrant workers cannot request to renew their permits, yet if the sponsor fails to do it, it is the worker that faces the punishment.

Furthermore, even when changes are suggested by legal agencies, the government fail to implement them. For example, a report from the Qatar government’s own lawyers in 2014 recommended that it commissioned a study into the death of migrant workers, More specifically, allow autopsies in cases of unexpected and sudden death to understand the reasoning behind the alarming statistics. The act of refusing to conduct these autopsies is a serious gross oversight from the Qatari government.

Photo Credit: CNN. The mourning of a Nepali migrant worker returning back from Qatar.

As the widely anticipated football event will begin this Sunday, as Qatar plays its first game, the football will come to spectate and celebrate the wins and triumphs of their teams, whilst many South Asian families grieve their loved ones from the brutal exploitation from the Qatari government. The highlighting of the brutal working, and living conditions as well as the low pay and lack of oversight from the World Cup is a continuation of the current labour crisis that has been ongoing in the Middle East. for decades.

It becomes difficult for many to support this year's event, as many organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the men's Australian Football team have called out Qatar for its atrocities towards migrant workers.

Yet, despite the international criticism Qatar continues to drag its feet on this issue, completely disregarding workers’ lives.

Here are some organisations that are getting involved in supporting migrant workers in Qatar:

Amnesty International

Amnesty International is one of the largest grassroots human rights organisations. This organisation works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied. They aim to expose abuses, educate and mobilise the public to transform society. This organisation sought after FIFA, urging them to set aside at least US$440 million for the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have suffered human rights abuses in Qatar during preparations for this year’s World Cup. Amnesty has been continuously calling out the Qatari government and FIFA for allowing the human rights abuses towards migrant workers, and despite some reform—and even till the run-up to the game—Amnesty is still urging them to do more.

Human Rights Watch

The Human Rights Watch is a leading international organisation dedicated to defending and promoting human rights around the world. This organisation directs their advocacy towards governments, armed groups and businesses, pushing them to change or enforce their laws, policies and practices. Their researchers work to uncover abuses and violations of human rights, by investigating sights of abuse and speaking first-hand with witnesses. They have been talking to Nepali migrant workers and grieving families that are mourning a lost one that never returned home, to highlight the atrocities working in Qatar as a South Asian migrant.

National Human Rights Committee

You can also support Qatari-based NGOs such as the National Human Rights Committee, which aims to protect and guarantee the preservation of human rights. The NHRC continuously works towards "Protecting human rights and preserving his dignity, mobilizing the energies of society around understanding and exercising his rights and duties, applying the values ​​of social justice and tolerance, and promoting equality and non-discrimination." During the build up to the Qatar World Cup, they have provided key information and coverage about the debates between ILO, FIFA, and the Qatari government and how that has brought changes to the old legislation.

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