Saturday 24 March 2018

Beautiful game exacts an ugly toll

Fifa frets over players in the extreme heat of Qatar but workers continue to toil on the stadiums

FIFA president Joseph Blatter opens the envelope to reveal that Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich four years ago.
FIFA president Joseph Blatter opens the envelope to reveal that Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich four years ago.

Antonia Leslie

Today in Qatar, the body count of migrant workers, dying while working, is huge and continues to rise. There are 1.4 million migrant workers who make up 94 per cent of the entire population. Those from India make up 22 per cent of the total, with a similar proportion from Pakistan. About 16 per cent are from Nepal, 13 per cent from Iran, 11 per cent from the Philippines, eight per cent from Egypt and Sri Lanka.

The remaining 6 per cent, the indigenous population, enjoy the highest GDP per capita in the world.

The International Labour Union says that 1,200 migrant workers have died since the massive $39bn (€28.6bn) project of building the 2022 World Cup facilities began and they expect up to another 4,000 deaths before its completion. Other unconfirmed sources estimate the figure of fatalities could become as high 8,000 before the first kick-off.

A damning report from The Guardian says: "It began with a steady flow of coffins through the arrivals hall at Kathmandu airport. In departures, hundreds of thousands of young men were leaving Nepal to provide for their families as the human capital fuelling a multibillion-dollar construction boom in the neighbouring Gulf states. In arrivals, on a daily basis, some of their predecessors were being unloaded from the cargo hold in coffins."

In Qatar, healthy young men are dying from heart attacks and exhaustion in the searing heat, temperatures of up to 50°C. These healthy young men, through desperate poverty, left their families in the pursuit of making a better living. Most have massive debts, medical bills or no other way of supporting their families at home. Such is the poverty that these men will ignore the rumours and horror stories they hear about going to work in Qatar and, on a leap of faith, mortgage their land or homes, sometimes having to raise as much as £3,000, (€3,695) to pay recruiting agencies to organise employment in Qatar, building infrastructure and stadiums for the World Cup.

Under Qatari kafala law, on arrival, migrant workers' passports are taken away. They live in squalor, housed in huge camp facilities. Undercover reporter Mark Aitken of The Daily Record tells us: "On Wednesday, the Qatari government insisted that the country's workforce are treated 'very well' and there has been 'great improvement' in the conditions of workers in recent months. But that night, under cover of darkness, risking arrest and imprisonment, we visited camps to see first-hand the truth about the plight of the migrant workforce. A half-hour drive from the gleaming city skyline of Doha, we found thousands of workers living in slum conditions. We visited one camp where more than 2,000 men live. There was an overpowering smell of excrement as we arrived. There were no Western-style toilets but holes in the floor. Others washed themselves using buckets of water. Salty water was used for drinking and washing. Dirty water or sewage flowed under our feet.

"Staff cooked their meals on filthy, grimy grills and stoves, with no sign of fridges or freezers. Workers slept in overcrowded accommodation, often 12 to each 4m by 4m room, separated by walls an inch thick and made of cheap wood. We were forced to leave when the labour camp boss threatened to call the Qatari police. If caught, we risked being arrested and held in custody. Conditions were no different at another camp. We have chosen not to identify it to protect the men who spoke to us. Young men in football tops asked us the latest match scores as they had no TVs, radio or internet access."

These once-healthy men work 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week. When they do get a day off, they either sleep all that day, as they are so exhausted, or hang out in the central bus station as they are banned from most public places and recreational facilities, even shopping malls – which they couldn't afford to visit anyway.

Under Qatari kafala laws they cannot leave the country or change job without written permission from their employers, who keep their passports and charge them for their accommodation and meagre rations. Sometimes these expenses can exceed their actual wage, which is around stg£136 (€167) a month.

Many complain they end up owing their employers more then they are paid so they never see a cent of their money. Others say they haven't been paid since they arrived, even though they have been there for months or even years. So they have never managed to send a single cent home to their families for whom they have made such sacrifice.

One worker says: "When I ask my employer when will I be paid, he says tomorrow – always tomorrow!" If they decide to quit and go home, they can only do so if their employer is willing to issue them with an official notice to leave and return their passports. They say this can be difficult when some employers refuse to talk to them or answer their phones. Some employers move on and leave behind immigrants working for nothing just to survive. Refusing to work is not an option. No work means no food and no accommodation. If they run away they and are caught, they are imprisoned.

This modern slavery is being implemented to create world-class stadiums employing cooling technology capable of reducing temperatures within the stadium by up to 20°C, and the upper tiers of the stadiums will be disassembled after the World Cup and donated to countries with less developed sports infrastructure. The Al Khor Stadium is planned for a location about 50km north of Doha. The stadium will have a total capacity of 45,330, with 19,830 of the seats forming part of a temporary modular upper tier.

The Al–Wakrah stadium in southern Qatar, will have a total capacity of 45,120 seats. The stadium will also contain a temporary upper tier of 25,500 seats. The stadium will be surrounded by large solar panels and will be decorated with Islamic art. Also included in the massive World Cup construction projects are hotels to accommodate the influx of football fans from all over the world, and new highways to allow them be transported between venues.

Over the next four years, Qatar will spend stg£123bn (€151bn) to convince Fifa that it made the right decision in picking that country as a World Cup venue. Whether or not that decision was based on bribery and corruption is something which will be investigated with the possibility the decision could be scrapped and a new venue chosen.

That, of course, would be disastrous for the Qatari authorities. What was a massive financial and prestigious coup for Qatar could turn into a nightmare. But at ground level, where the immigrant "slaves" daily toil in the unbearable heat, this is all beyond them. Amnesty International, the International Trade Union Confederation and Human Rights Watch have raised the plight of the workers on a number of occasions, but their calls receive nothing like the worldwide coverage of the possible bribery and corruption at the heart of the Qatari bid.

Neither have they received much notice from Fifa – the body you might think would be most concerned at this scandal.

But then major companies from most of the big European nations have lucrative contracts to supply equipment for the multi-billion project. And at the end of the day, business is business.

Fifa's secretary general, Jerome Valcke, promised to hold Qatar to account, but to date there is little evidence of this. While they worry about players suffering heat stroke while playing in the Qatari sun, they seem to care little for the workers who are dying now in the same conditions.

Fifa president Sepp Blatter announced: "As the world governing body of the most popular sport we have a responsibility that goes beyond the development of football and the organisation of our competitions."

But when Valcke said recently that Fifa was "committed to assuming its role and responsibility ... so that the situation of migrant workers in Qatar and their labour rights is addressed with the necessary urgency considering the seriousness of the matter," Blatter appeared to contradict him.

The Fifa boss said: "They have a problem and we know that, but this is not a question for Fifa. It is one which Qatar must handle, as well as all the construction companies who are responsible for the workers."

Sunday Independent

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