Sun, Sep 29, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Mistreatment entrenched in Qatar’s economy

The contractors constructing the Qatar World Cup village are not just exploiting migrant workers, they are creating a system of ‘modern-day slavery.’ Their tools are not new in a gulf state, built on migrant labor

By Pete Pattisson  /  The Guardian, KATHMANDU and DOHA

Illustration: Taina Chou

Dozens of Nepalese migrant laborers have died in Qatar in recent weeks and thousands more are enduring appalling labor abuses, an investigation has found, raising serious questions about Qatar’s preparations to host the 2022 World Cup.

This summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of laborers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labor Organization, during a building binge paving the way for 2022.

According to documents obtained from the Nepalese embassy in Doha, at least 44 workers died between June 4 and Aug. 8. More than half died of heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents.

The investigation also reveals:

‧ Evidence of forced labor on a huge World Cup infrastructure project;

‧ Some Nepalese men have alleged that they have not been paid for months and have had their salaries retained to stop them running away;

‧ Some workers on other sites say employers routinely confiscate passports and refuse to issue ID cards, in effect reducing them to the status of illegal aliens;

‧ Some laborers say they have been denied access to free drinking water in the desert heat;

‧ About 30 Nepalese sought refuge at their embassy in Doha to escape the brutal conditions of their employment.

The allegations suggest a chain of exploitation leading from poor Nepalese villages to Qatari leaders. The overall picture is of one of the richest nations exploiting one of the poorest to get ready for the world’s most popular sporting tournament.

“We’d like to leave, but the company won’t let us,” said one Nepalese migrant employed at Lusail City development, a US$45 billion city being built from scratch which will include the 90,000-seat stadium that will host the World Cup final. “I’m angry about how this company is treating us, but we’re helpless. I regret coming here, but what to do? We were compelled to come just to make a living, but we’ve had no luck.”

The body tasked with organizing the World Cup, the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, said that work had yet to begin on projects directly related to the World Cup. However, it said it was “deeply concerned with the allegations that have been made against certain contractors and subcontractors working on Lusail City’s construction site and considers this issue to be of the utmost seriousness.” It added: “We have been informed that the relevant government authorities are conducting an investigation into the allegations.”

Investigations also found men throughout the wider Qatari construction industry sleeping 12 to a room in places and getting sick through repulsive conditions in filthy hostels. Some say they have been forced to work without pay and are left begging for food.

“We were working on an empty stomach for 24 hours; 12 hours work and then no food all night,” 27-year-old Ram Kumar Mahara said. “When I complained, my manager assaulted me, kicked me out of the labor camp I lived in and refused to pay me anything. I had to beg for food from other workers.”

Almost all migrant workers have huge debts from Nepal, accrued in order to pay recruitment agents for their jobs. The obligation to repay these debts, combined with the non-payment of wages, confiscation of documents and inability of workers to leave their place of work, constitute forced labor, a form of modern-day slavery estimated to affect up to 21 million people across the globe. So entrenched is this exploitation that the Nepalese ambassador to Qatar, Maya Kumari Sharma, recently described the emirate as an “open jail.”

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