It is hardly surprising that Qatari authorities have responded to the international outcry over migrant worker conditions in the country with a pledge to improve. But having seen first-hand the horrors endured by many of those helping the country build for the 2022 football World Cup, it is difficult to imagine the woolly commitments will have resulted in much relief.
I spent five days seeing for myself the shocking conditions being endured by migrant workers during a fact-finding mission organised by the construction workers’ union UCATT. To say I was horrified by some of the things I witnessed and stories I heard would be an understatement.
Workers living in squalid, cramped and cockroach-infested conditions 12 to a room with a solid plank for a bed and fetid communal toilets. People being paid slave wages to toil in conditions in which their work colleagues have literally been killed around them.
And what is worse is that the majority of the 1.2 million migrant workers suffering through this living nightmare have actually been exploited to pay for this life, bound by huge interest rates which make walking away impossible under the controversial ‘kafala’ sponsorship scheme. To make matters worse, ruthless employment agencies charge around £1,000 to secure these jobs promising good wages. Many migrants find their contracts are changed on arrival and most I spoke to earn between £35 and £45 per week.
They cannot seek a different job without permission. They need permission to leave the country. They are effectively bonded labourers. They are trapped; desperately trying to repay astronomical interest rates on loans they took to pay the agencies who promised a life of milk and honey. Some 1,200 men have been killed on construction sites in Qatar since the World Cup was awarded. The death toll will be around 4,000 by the time the event starts if nothing is done.
It is the ‘kafala’ programme which the Qatari government has now stated that it will replace. But actions speak louder than words and, if you dig a little deeper, there is not a great deal happening on the ground to reassure the workers that change is around the corner. Most are prevented from escaping the hell they have found themselves because the exit visa scheme makes a migrant worker a slave to their single employer, who has rights over the workers and can prevent them leaving.
The Qatari government has said it proposed to alter these rules to make it less difficult for the migrants to return home. But this is not something the employers who have been conditioned to convince themselves the system is acceptable are likely to take lying down. And that is where the Qatari government needs to demonstrate some true leadership and take the issue by the scruff of the neck with a genuine determination to fix it. They need to do that not just for the World Cup workers, but for the many other long-suffering labourers who cannot escape their employers’ clutches.
Qatari ministers must come out and say exactly what they plan to do, rather than putting on a public relations show in a bid to soften the international media as they have repeatedly tried to do so far. The World Cup: one of the glitziest and most glamorous sporting events on the planet. Yet behind Qatar 2022 will lie death, misery and exploitation so cruel it doesn’t bear thinking about.
With another 500,000 migrant workers due to arrive before the tournament begins, the international community has a responsibility to think about it – and to force change.