IIn a dusty parking lot, near one of the biggest labor camps in QatarAgent A gets into my car. I’ll call him Worker A, not because I don’t want to reveal his name, but because I don’t know his name.
He doesn’t agree to talk to me until I show him my name on the articles I’ve written and match it to my passport. I hand my phone to prove that I am not recording anything.
He told me the reason he was reluctant to talk was that his employer had recently used a “spy” to root out troublesome employees. “Everyone is afraid to speak up but we are dying inside,” he says.
He claims they work 12-hour shifts six days a week, but do not receive the legal rate of overtime pay. He adds that they generally earn the equivalent of £335 a month. Our manager has [nice car] But on my salary I couldn’t even buy her four tyres. Worker A says.
He claims six workers share a room in their labor camp, which is also illegal, and the food is so bad that he says “dogs won’t eat it.”
He told me about a co-worker, a young man who recently collapsed and died at his workplace, after saying he was fine but ordered to work regardless.
Another source sent me a picture of the deceased worker. When I first met her, I asked if I could add her number to my phone so we could keep in touch. She told me to wait because her boss might have been watching. After a few minutes, she dropped me a message with her number written on it.
On a recent press trip I met another worker with whom I’ve been in touch for years. Someone saw us talking and a few days later the police called and questioned him.
This is how we report getting ready for the biggest soccer tournament in the world: with secret meetings in parking lots and messages that can disappear in five minutes. Every sentence I write is carefully constructed so as not to reveal anything that would put someone at risk.
What are these workers afraid of? It is sent home. Because for all the trouble they’re in, the harsh reality is that they need to work – and they have to pay off the debts they took on to get the job done.
When the pandemic started, one of the workers told me that everyone was terrified, but not of Covid. Most of us have borrowed money to come here. If we are sent home, how can we pay our debts? “We are afraid to return empty-handed,” he said.
Another said, “When they see you trying to fight for your rights, they find any simple excuse to send you back to your homeland.”
This fear extends even beyond Qatar’s borders. This week I have been filming interviews with Nepalese workers recently repatriated from Qatar, as companies finish construction projects on the eve of world Cup. They were promised to work for two years, but had barely been in Qatar for six months and were struggling to pay their debts.
They agreed to speak, but at the end of each interview they said they feared they would be prevented from getting another job in Qatar if they spoke.
Every time the workers tell me about the problems they faced in Qatar, I ask: Will you come back? And the answer is always “yes,” because they have very few other options. A day of manual labor in Nepal can earn as little as 400 rupees (£2.75), so the paltry minimum wage in Qatar, which is around £8 a day, seems attractive.
Under Qatar Labor Law, foreign workers have the right to change jobs if their contract is terminated and legal procedures are in place if the employee does not receive his salary or bonuses at the end of his contract.
The Qatari government also said a fund to support workers, including by paying unpaid wages or benefits, paid 152.5 million pounds by last month.
Qatar – and all the other Gulf states – can tell a compelling story about how it created opportunity and alleviated poverty for millions. And to some extent. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Qatar has also taken advantage of poverty, and the desperation of many, to build the infrastructure for their country and the World Cup.
I pay school fees for three boys [back home]. A worker tells me. “That is why I am here. If I go home now, my children will starve to death.”
And so, for many like him, the only thing worse than being in Qatar is not being in Qatar.
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