WRITTEN BY ZANAB J.S.
Football is the world's most popular sport. It's likely you wouldn't have to travel far from your own home to see the truth in this statement; whether it's at the nearest field, parking lot or even an empty alleyway, football manifests itself wherever we go. My father relishes any opportunity to tell us about his days as a football player in Pakistan, while my younger brother plays on two separate leagues here in Toronto and coaches Muslim youth in a third. There are a handful of activities and interests that unite us intercontinentally on such a massive scale, and certainly, football is one.
For this reason it is not surprising the World Cup is the most televised sporting event in history. The 2022 World Cup will be held in Qatar, and of the billion viewers worldwide awaiting the first kickoff, I will not be one.
Khalifa International Stadium; home of the 2022 FIFA World Cup//Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy
By the end of the opening ceremonies in 2022, thousands of migrant workers will have died in the process of preparing for the WC.
The majority of migrant workers in Qatar travel from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Somalia, Ethiopia and the Philippines to take on various labour roles through advising agencies in their home countries that connect them with contractors and employers. Men are primarily recruited for construction jobs, while women take on care-taker and maid roles, often living with the families they service. The 2022 WC has exponentially increased the demand for construction workers in the country.
Migrant workers in Qatar abide by the kafala system ("sponsorship system"), in which entry into the country is reliant on a sponsor; in most cases, employers act as sponsors for the labourers they hire. This system is widespread across Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman.
Under the kafala system, the sponsor is in control of acquiring the legal status in the country as well as the visas for their employees. Thus, as a migrant worker, entering and leaving from Qatar is under the domain of your employer, as solely the sponsor is responsible for entry and exit visas. The kafala system has, predictably, resulted in the exploitation of thousands of migrant workers over the past decade. Denounced by several humanitarian organizations as exploitative, too many stories of employers withholding passports and payment have circulated.
Labourers are assigned to small rooms with as many as 8 people//Amnesty International
Often told of modest-to-decent accommodation and wages, many migrant workers are shocked to learn of their actual living quarters. With tens of men sharing latrines, bedrooms and kitchens, migrant workers are faced with unimaginably poor living conditions upon arrival. I tried hard to imagine what it would feel like to learn that my living quarters would be shared with 200 other people for the duration of my one or two year stay--I couldn't.
Withholding payment is another oft-occurring abuse against migrant workers. Employers or agencies will use the compensation of workers' airfare in exchange for months of free, unpaid labour. The fee for one paid ticket from Pakistan to Qatar can cost a migrant worker up to 6 months of unpaid construction work. Again, I tried to imagine the moment I would learn that my labour for thousands of hours was to remain unpaid, and once more, I just couldn't.
Perhaps the most unapologetic brutalization of migrant workers can be seen in the working conditions themselves. Migrant workers have been forced to work for up to 12 hours a day in blistering Qatari heat, wearing minimal protective gear and in obscenely dangerous locations and construction sites. Migrant workers have circulated videos taken with hidden cameras of their superiors denying them water in 50 C weather and ordering them to work longer in exchange for such a basic necessity. As many migrant workers labour under grotesquely hazardous conditions, those who are injured, and at times permanently disabled, are viewed as burdens and sent home by their employers without compensation for their loss.
And then, there are those who die. In 2014, 16 year old Ganesh Bishkawarma bid a teary goodbye to his mother, grandmother and siblings at Nepal's largest airport in Kathmandu. For Ganesh's family, sending their teenage son to Qatar was an unthinkable decision, but one they could not see an alternative to. Ganesh, like all other migrant workers traveling to rich Arab states, had only noble intentions. He had hoped that this journey would be the one to lead his family away from poverty.
Ganesh's family could not have foreseen that only two months later their son would return to them in a coffin. After nearly 6 weeks of excruciating labour, Ganesh suffered and died of cardiac arrest on his assigned worksite. Of all the unimaginable atrocities I learned about the lives of migrant workers, this was the most unbearable.
How does a 16 year old boy experience cardiac arrest? A better question: what kind of abuse must a healthy 16 year old boy undergo to die of cardiac arrest? What must be done to him? How many hours must he work under the excruciating heat? How many vital, necessary things must be kept from him? What kind of physical and emotional turmoil must he experience? Which kind of trauma must be inflicted? In how many ways must a 16 year old child be brutalized for his body to surrender so violently? What crimes must be committed in order to accomplish something like this?
Tilak Bahadur Bishwakarma holds a photo of his son, Ganesh, 16, who died in Qatar from a cardiac arrest, six weeks after leaving Nepal. Photograph: Peter Pattisson/guardian.co.uk. (SOURCE)
In an article for the Guardian, Ganesh's grandmother, Motikala Bishkawarma, expresses her grief over the sudden loss of her grandson:
"We didn't think he would die like this. We didn't think we would be crying like this."
The article goes on to explain Ganesh was too young to legally work in Qatar, but through a travel agent he was able to secure a fake passport. The agent brokered a fee of 150 000 rupees with a 36% interest rate that Ganesh was meant to pay back using his salary. The family is now left with the remainder of the hefty sum.
Ganesh's story is all too common for families of Nepalese migrant workers. Many see the demand of the WC as their only opportunity to provide a steady income for their families, and with this intent they are willing to hand over whatever money they have to brokers who can connect them to contractors in Qatar. Lured in by paid agents with promises of private living accommodations and steady income, the appalling work conditions, living conditions and lack of pay isn't realized until it's too late.
Those that resist their abuse are punished severely.
The kafala system creates an environment where contractors can easily take the passports of those that work for them. Migrant workers have been kept hostage at their work sites, with their employers withholding their passports, without which they cannot travel, and their ID cards, without which they face the risk of being arrested by Qatari police for not carrying proper documentation.
Amnesty International's investigative report on migrant exploitation in Qatar found that the majority of the workforce they interviewed had their passports taken from them upon arrival:
"I remember my first day in Qatar. Almost the very first thing [an agent] did was take my passport. I have not seen it since." --Shamim, a gardner at one of the WC complexes from Bangladesh
Prisoners to their employers, migrant workers are subject to slave labour as they are denied permission to the leave the country, working for months and years with or without pay, seemingly trapped in Qatar without any way to escape. For some migrant workers, running away from the worksite is their only hope of getting back home; in Qatar, if you're arrested without your ID card, there is a chance you will be deported by Qatari police. For Bahadur Lama, a 25 year old Nepalese national, this is now his only hope:
"When my two-year contract finished, I asked my employer to let me go home. He kept promising to issue me with an exit permit and send me home, but he never did [...] Last year my employer sold me to another man, but when he realized I was an undocumented worker, he fired me. My only option now is to turn myself in to the police, and hope that they'll deport me."
When several migrant workers protested their lack of pay for 10 months' worth of work, their employer refused to supply their exit visas, keeping them trapped in the country and within the worksite.
12 hour work days with little to no pay is an unbearable truth for migrant workers. When contrasted with the gargantuan profit made by FIFA and its subsidiaries, the reality of Qatar's slave labour is nothing short of medieval:
CREDIT: Amnesty International; Qatar World Cup of Shame. (Click to enlarge).
As employers continue to lie about wages, fail to provide even minimally safe living and working conditions, and render their employees slaves as they steal passports, documentation and salaries, the death toll for migrant workers in Qatar continues to soar.
According to the labour ministries of Bangladesh, India and Nepal, nearly 600 migrant workers from all three countries have been killed per year due to working conditions since 2010. What is even more unbearable is the fact that workers from Bangladesh, India and Nepal account for only 60% of the migrant workforce in Qatar, meaning that the true death toll is still unaccounted for and certainly much higher than 600 workers per year.
The level of emotional devastation faced by migrant workers is insurmountable. At the very least, it is beyond the human scope of understanding or perseverance. Impoverished men and women, boys and girls, seeking a way out of destitution are being lied to and trapped in a country that does not consider them human; the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar is cruelty personified, it is the modern face of an ancient tradition and it must be addressed. The labourers of Qatar deserve wages that reflect their unbelievable hard work and accommodations that take their health and safety into utmost consideration. Human beings cannot be treated like machinery; there is no excuse for what is happening in Qatar and no excuse for FIFA's blessing of this pattern of abuse. There is no one in the world that deserves this treatment, and certainly not migrant workers seeking to create a better life.
Millions of migrant workers are being exploited for their poverty, enslaved for their labour and ultimately killed by enterprises seeking to amplify their own financial gain. Through an outlet as unifying as a game of football, Qatar and FIFA have constructed stadiums and skyscrapers from the bones of labourers they have lured and destroyed.
Between now and the kickoff for the opening match in 2022, there will be upwards of 4800 lives lost, and just as many reasons to boycott the commencement of the Qatar World Cup.
For inquiries regarding this article, tweet Zanab J.S. @zanabism