World Cup: The human cost of Qatar 2022

The bill stands at $200bn ⁠–⁠ but the true price of hosting football’s greatest prize has been paid by the migrant workers who have suffered abuse and even death to bring the tournament to the Middle East. Grieving families tell David Harding their stories

Sunday 20 November 2022 07:14 GMT
(Dave Brown)
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The Doha Metro is one of the engineering jewels of Qatar, a $36bn (£32bn) ultra-modern transport system, speeding people around the Gulf state’s glass-towered futurescape capital and beyond. Usually it can be used to move between restaurants in the formerly run-down Msheireb district, or five-star hotels in Doha’s well-heeled West Bay. But for the next few weeks, tens of thousands of football fans will use it to get to each of the eight stadiums of the Qatar World Cup, from Al Janoub in the south to Al Bayt in the north.

It spans 76km (47 miles), has 37 stations, and is perhaps the single greatest symbol of how Qatar’s staggering wealth and ambition has helped to utterly transform the country in the past few years.

The incredible transformation of Qatar has been in readiness for the World Cup. No country has ever been so physically changed just to hold a football tournament.

As well as the Metro, Qatar has built or upgraded eight stadiums at an official cost of $10bn (£8bn), and built a $17bn (£14bn) airport, along with hotels, roads, a huge port, thousands of apartments, a neighbourhood that is a replica of Venice, a vast $400m (£335m) national museum, and even a $45bn (£39bn) city in time for kick-off on Sunday. The centrepiece of that new city, Lusail, is the $770m (£650m) gold-coloured stadium that will host the World Cup final. Qatar says it spent $500m (£420m) a week preparing for the tournament, to a total of $200bn (£168bn). The real cost may be much higher.

As with many things in Qatar, the Metro comes at a steep price. The country’s transformation has been possible not only through Qatari money, but also thanks to the labour of a huge army of workers, mostly from south Asia.

‘I asked him not to go’

Kashi Ram Belbase, 32, was an electrician from the Kapilvastu district in the south of Nepal, close to the Indian border.

Kapilvastu is known locally for its farming, but Kashi had been promised a job abroad where he could secure a wage far in excess of what he might earn at home. In 2013, he travelled to Qatar to work on the Metro.

Married with a young son and daughter, Kashi followed a well-trodden path for many Nepalis. By some estimates there are more than 430,000 Nepalis working in the World Cup host nation, which makes them a larger contingent of the Gulf state’s population than actual Qataris, who number around 315,000.

What happened to Kashi was ⁠–⁠ tragically ⁠–⁠ to prove typical of the experience of many of his fellow countrymen.

Family members mourn a Nepali migrant worker who died in Qatar (Sebastian Castelier)

Lured to the country by a recruitment agency on the promise of working as an electrician, he was instead employed as a carpenter. This has happened to many migrant workers, who subsequently found themselves working for less money than offered ⁠–⁠ and on longer contracts, at a time when changing jobs was not an option.

Kashi was employed for two years before returning home for a break, during which he refused to tell his wife about the harsh conditions, say his family.

“We knew that there is extreme heat in Qatar, but he never told us this when he was back home,” his widow Dhanakala tells The Independent. “When I asked him not to go there again if it is difficult for him, he replied that he would go as it was all right. He said it would be better when he left again. Even though he used to say that the work was not so tough for him, we felt that it must have been tough as he was abroad.”

In March 2015, Dhanakala was told abruptly that her husband had died. They only found out the cause from his fellow workers. “After the death, his co-workers informed me that the reason was a heart attack,” she says.

‘It tarnishes this legacy’

Kashi was fit when he left for Qatar, but his tale is sadly not out of the ordinary. Many deaths have been ascribed to acute cardio-respiratory failure, though experts claim this is a symptom rather than a cause.

The matter of deaths among those working on Qatar’s preparations for the World Cup has become a grim and unsightly game of numbers, accusations and denial. The number of dead ranges from an official tally of three people having died in construction-related incidents at World Cup stadiums, through the 6,500 reported in The Guardian in February 2021 – counting workers from five countries, including Nepal – to the 15,000 cited in an Amnesty International report released last year.

Qatar has maintained that “the mortality rate among migrant communities is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population”, and that World Health Organisation figures show that the mortality rate among migrant south Asian workers is lower in Qatar than in their own countries.

The true scale may never be known, largely because official Qatari figures are inadequate, especially on causes of death. The price paid, however, is not just in lives, but in myriad other abuses – including wage theft, unpaid overtime, injuries, passport theft, and discrimination, according to rights groups.

“I see two major costs with this World Cup,” says Michael Page of Human Rights Watch. “Of course it is the cost of lives, but also the other serious abuses that migrant workers who have built the World Cup infrastructure experienced.

“There’s also a cost paid in terms of the legacy. Many migrant workers are proud of what they have built in terms of infrastructure. Their stories are intertwined with the Qatar World Cup, but that is overshadowed by Fifa and Qatar’s unwillingness to compensate them for the serious abuses they have faced.

“It tarnishes this legacy in such an incredible way, given that the people who are most responsible for making this possible are the ones who paid the highest price.”

‘It’s too hard for us to believe’

There is also the question of illness. After five years working in Qatar as a cleaner and a cook, Dambar Bahadur Khatri returned to Nepal in June last year suffering from kidney failure. Five months later he was dead, aged 28.

“He died nearly three months after our marriage,” says his wife, Manita. “We did not have enough money for his treatment.” His sister Sharmila adds: “My brother was perfect before going to Qatar; it’s too hard for us to believe he is no more.”

In the past decade, the authorities in Nepal have recorded an increase in the number of young men dying of kidney failure after they returned home from working in the Middle East. Experts point to the extreme heat in the Gulf – the World Cup was moved from a summer event to a winter one to protect players and spectators – as well as low-quality drinking water as factors.

Qatar has come under unprecedented scrutiny and criticism after being chosen as a World Cup host, the first Arab and Muslim country to be so,- especially when that award came from a body as discredited as Fifa. Much of the criticism, especially with regard to labour abuse and LGBT+ rights, has been justified – though undeniably, some has been motivated by other sinister factors.

World Cup CEO Nasser al Khater spoke earlier this month about “highly racist” criticism levelled at Qatar, and said Europeans should realise that they do not “own” the tournament.

The country’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, said this month that Qatar had been “subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced”. This “campaign” included “fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that it has unfortunately prompted many people to question the real reasons and motives”, he said.

The claims of racism from the Gulf have grown more vociferous in recent weeks, as the backlash against Western critics has exploded, and culminated in Gianni Infantino’s extraordinary rant in Doha on Saturday.

The scrutiny, whether or not it amounts to a campaign, though has exposed a rift between “traditional” footballing nations, such as England, Germany and Spain, and those that are increasingly influential in the sport, such as Qatar.

‘What happens when that spotlight goes out?’

It has also shone a light on modern-day global working practices, and unscrupulous recruitment agencies, employers and the work of global companies – issues of which Qatar is only a tiny part.

Doha has pointed to reforms made since 2010, including the partial end of the kafala, or sponsorship, system – introduced long ago by the British – which meant that workers could not leave their jobs or even the country without the permission of their bosses. Qatar also highlights the introduction of a minimum wage and a wage protection system, which was brought in to ensure that workers received their salaries.

Qatar is clear that such measures will ensure the 2022 World Cup a place in history.

“Qatar has made a firm commitment to ensure that the World Cup leaves a positive, long lasting legacy across key areas including labour rights, social development, infrastructure and the environment,” a Qatari government official tells The Independent.

“The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 has been a catalyst for driving Qatar’s labour reforms. Qatar leads the region on labour rights and – in close collaboration with international partners such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) – has created a fair and effective labour system that has already benefited thousands of workers.

“Our comprehensive labour legislation and initiatives will leave an enduring legacy in Qatar and across the wider region.”

Workers’ welfare, added the official, has “always been a top priority for the State of Qatar”.

“Systemic change does not happen overnight and shifting the behaviour of every company takes time. We are committed to holding every unscrupulous employer accountable, and we are working hard to ensure our advancements are comprehensive, genuine and long lasting.”

And the World Cup has “galvanised the nation”, added the official.

“In Qatar, the legacy of the World Cup is already in plain view. Hosting the World Cup has accelerated positive changes, particularly in key areas like infrastructure, education, healthcare, the environment, and tourism.”

Such a statement suggests that reform in Qatar will continue after the last World Cup football is kicked.

Yasin Kakande, a Ugandan journalist and author who has written on Gulf labour practices and worked in Qatar between 2014 and 2016, says he worries what will happen when the World Cup is over and global attention turns elsewhere.

“It is still very difficult to see anything positive coming from this World Cup,” he says. “What happens when that spotlight goes out? What Qatar has been doing is addressing the spotlight.”

Critics have praised Qatar’s ability to announce reforms, less so its ability to enforce them. So, is there anything that can be salvaged from the World Cup that can appease critics of Qatar and Fifa over rights, compensate those who have “paid the highest price”, and show that football is truly about “values and causes”, to quote the sport’s top administrator (and now Doha resident) Mr Infantino?

Page, of Human Rights Watch, notes the widening calls for a compensation fund for migrant workers killed or injured during World Cup preparations. The English Football Association is among those to have backed the idea. But crucially, Fifa and Qatar have not. Doha’s labour minister, Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, recently branded calls for such a fund a “publicity stunt”.

The compensation would match the $440m (£370m) World Cup prize money on offer at the tournament.

Page calls Fifa’s silence on the fund “insulting and disrespectful”. But, he insists, it is not too late. “If there is a remedy fund that Fifa commits to ... I think that would leave a more positive legacy,” he says. However, that hope comes with a proviso: “It cannot make up for thousands of unexplained deaths. You can’t wash that away... you can’t disappear that.”

Additional reporting: Pramod Acharya/Shape History

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