By Christoph Scheuermann
Gabriela Maj/ Agentur Focus/ DER SPIEGEL
Qatar is spending billions to build hotels, subways, shopping centers and stadiums ahead of the World Cup in 2022. But those working on the projects are poorly paid and poorly housed. And some of them can’t leave.
Beneath their hardhats, the workers laboring away at the construction sites in Qatar wear thin cotton balaclavas as protection against the morning chill and the midday sun. The preferred headgear has only a thin slit for the eyes, making it look as though the city were being erected by ghosts. But the men have been charged with transforming the Gulf state into a glitzy paradise, complete with hotels, office buildings, shopping malls and football stadiums. And the first thing the desert takes from them is their faces.
Ganesh was one of these phantoms. He has since returned to his family in Nepal’s southeast. He could hardly wait to leave Qatar. Ganesh has promised himself to never again set foot in the desert.
On this spring evening, though, Ganesh’s trip back home still lies before him. He is sprawled out exhausted on his bed on the outskirts of Doha after finishing his shift. The room is just 16 square meters (172 square feet) — and provides shelter to 10 workers. With the fan broken and the window sealed shut with aluminum foil, the air is thick and stuffy. Outside, a diesel generator roars. It is only with great effort that Ganesh, a cheerful, somewhat shy 26-year-old with jet black hair hanging to his shoulders, is able to suppress his frustration and fatigue.
The building is a gray concrete block located in a part of Doha where the city gives way to housing projects, bus parking lots and factory warehouses. On the map, the area is simply labeled “industrial zone.” But it is home to the thousands of faceless workers, the place where they eat and sleep. In Ganesh’s building, 100 workers are housed on three floors, far away from the glittery hotels in the city center. They live on the edge of a dream that the sheikhs want to make reality.
Part of that dream is the 2022 World Cup, which the country has been chosen to host. Thus far, none of the new sporting facilities planned for the event has been completed, though construction has begun on one site south of Doha, the Al-Wakrah Stadium. But a World Cup requires more than just stadiums; hotels, roads, bridges, parks and an expanded subway system are necessary as well. Those are the projects that men like Ganesh are currently working on, even if organizers claim that the structures are not directly related to the football tournament to be held eight years from now. The World Cup committee wants to avoid the impression that the effort to bring football to the desert has already cost hundreds of lives.
Important Enough to Die For
In the years 2012 and 2013 alone, some 964 workers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh have died in Qatar, a total that has since been confirmed by the Qatari government. A significant number of the men died in the summer, the victims of heat or workplace accidents — leading many to wonder how a football tournament can be so important that people must die for it.
Making matters even worse are new indications, made public last week by Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper, of corruption surrounding the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Former Qatari football official Mohammed Bin Hammam allegedly bribed members of the FIFA executive committee. He is thought to have distributed a total of $5 million to various FIFA members from Africa to secure their vote in favor of Qatar back in 2010. Yet however the absurd decision to hold a football tournament in the desert came to pass, it is men like Ganesh who must now suffer the consequences.
In his room, with cockroaches skittering across the floor, some three dozen men have gathered, all of them barefoot. The workers are discussing why the rooms are still overcrowded, why the toilets are still filthy and why their meals are still not satisfactory. After all, Amnesty International publicized the miserable conditions back in November. But since then, the situation hasn’t improved much. There are just three small washrooms in the building for 100 workers, one of the men says. Another complains that aid workers frequently come by to conduct interviews, but nothing changes as a result. A scaffolding worker from western Nepal says he has been working here since mid-November and still hadn’t received his first paycheck. The men become louder until Dipak, an older supervisor, sends some of the workers outside. Ganesh stops talking; he doesn’t like the fact that some of his colleagues raised their voices.
They are skittish. Everyone fears that he will be the next to succumb to the desert’s curse. Around one half of the 1.4 million migrant workers in the country come from India and Pakistan, with 16 percent hailing from Nepal. The rest come from Iran, the Philippines, Egypt and Sri Lanka.
The men drag themselves in silent resignation to the construction sites, even when their bodies ache. “Sometimes I am so dizzy in the morning that I can’t get up,” Ganesh says quietly, as though he were admitting a weakness. For every day that he doesn’t work, 5 percent of his monthly salary is withheld. He says that he came voluntarily, but his legal situation is hardly better than that of a slave.
Many construction companies in Qatar treat their workers as though they own them, a product primarily of the country’s labor laws. Every foreigner who wants to work here must prove they have an in-country sponsor as foreseen by the so-called Kafala system. Without the sponsor’s permission, workers may not change jobs or leave the country. Unions are also forbidden.
A ‘Missed Opportunity’
In mid-May, the Qatari government announced a reform to the Kafala system to make it easier to obtain a departure visa and to increase penalties on companies that confiscate workers’ passports. But human rights activists have criticized the reform as a sham. Amnesty International referred to it as a “missed opportunity.”
This is despite the fact that Qatar is a rich country, with one of the biggest natural gas reserves in the world lying off the coast. With a GDP per capita among the highest anywhere, the country could easily pay higher wages. But the pre-World Cup construction boom has attracted many foreign companies to Qatar — from France, Great Britain, China and Germany. And they are unwilling to share their profits with Indians and Nepalese. For six days of work per week, to 10 hours per day, Ganesh receives €300 per month.