“Qatar’s legal framework is better than other countries’ in the region, but the conditions on the ground are still bad. If they want to be a role model as they claim, much more needs to be done to protect workers rights,” said May Romanos of Amnesty International.
Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup a decade ago and has been on a massive construction spree. After international media spotlight in 2018 it promised to reform labour conditions, but there are still reports of unpaid wages, high recruitment costs, deplorable living conditions, and death from heat stress.
There have been at least 30 deaths of migrant workers at World Cup construction sites, rights group say, 18 of them unexplained. In Kathmandu, the coffins arrived on flights from Doha, and the same planes took more migrant workers to Qatar.
‘Died in his sleep’ (सुत्दा सुत्दै मर्यो) has become a colloquial Nepali term and the fatalities were attributed to ‘natural causes’. Mostly, there was nothing natural about them – they were a result of overwork, heat stroke and official apathy.
Nepali workers were dying in Qatar, but they were also dying to work in Qatar. And therein was the conundrum. The money they earned building stadiums in Qatar, helped them build homes for their families back in Nepal.
“At least 70% of the deaths are unexplained which is not acceptable, especially in a country with such an advanced health system,” said Nicholas McGeehan of the rights group FairSquare. “Being a migrant worker in Qatar today is really bad for your health, and can kill you.”
Rameshwar is from Sarlahi district and works as an electrician in Qatar. He supports a Brazilian football team, works at a labour supply company. Like many other Nepali workers, he is worried that he will be sent home in 2022 before the FIFA games begin.
“They mostly want to keep the maintenance workers, and might send everyone else back,” he says on the phone from Doha. “I am worried I will lose my job. How will I provide for my family after I return?”
To be sure, Qatar cannot be singled out for blame. The exploitation of workers by unscrupulous recruiters and harassment by officials starts back in Nepal, even before workers leave home.
At a time when construction for the World Cup was going full swing in Qatar, the ambassadorial post in Doha was vacant from 2013-17 when migrant abuses, including sudden deaths of Nepali workers, was at its peak and getting worldwide attention.
Then, Prime Minister Deuba’s government recalled Narad Nath Bharadwaj without naming his replacement, at a time when the need for labour diplomacy in Doha was most critical.
And this year, Nepal and Qatar bungled a lucrative employment deal to supply the Qatar Police with 200 Nepalis. They would have earned Rs180,000 a month, excluding overtime pay and end-of-service benefits. Unscrupulous authorities and recruiters knew that desperate Nepalis would be willing to pay under the table. But things got so messy that all 200 job orders were cancelled.
“Everyone wanted a piece of the pie until there was no pie left at all,” said one activist.
Nepal has also failed to fulfil its promise of reintegrating workers who had to return due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Schemes like the Prime Minister’s Employment Program introduced with much fanfare have failed to deliver.
There are reports that Qatar could be planning to send back many construction workers on extended leaves, including Nepalis, before the games begin in the stadiums and facilities they helped build.
“Even if they let me stay, it is not like I could afford the tickets to go watch the games in the stadium,” says Rameshwor. “I will watch it on the TV screen.”
There will be many Nepalis in the hospitality sector who will look after players and visitors in Doha during the World Cup, and workers are hopeful that there will be future projects they can engage in.
But international rights watchdogs say the world’s attention is going to wane once the games are over and the media glare shifts. They say not a single worker died during construction of stadiums in London for the 2012 Olympics, and there is no reason why Qatar with its resources could not adhere to similar safety standards.
“Despite Qatar’s PR offensive and sportswash, there is an urgent need for real and durable reforms because workers continue to suffer wage abuse, employers avoid accountability, complaints are ignored,” said Hiba Zayadin of Human Rights Watch.
Meanwhile, back in Nepal, politicians are already in election mode, and will be too preoccupied with their campaigns during 2022 to pay attention to migrant welfare. There are already lofty claims about how in the next five years, if they are elected, they will curb migration and create jobs back home.
Most Nepalis have heard all that before, and the trust deficit is so high that out-migration to Qatar and elsewhere seems like the more reliable – and for many, the only – alternative.
The government should immediately ensure that Nepal’s embassies in destination countries for migrants are adequately staffed and funded. It could diversify out-migration towards better, higher paying jobs, and use bilateral labour agreements like the one with Qatar that is currently being renewed for better worker protection.