Modern-Day Slavery – Trapped in Qatar: The Migrants Who Helped Build the ‘Tower of Football’
Despite World Cup host’s promises to improve life for foreign labourers, many still live desperate lives in the shadow of unimaginable riches.
28 July 2014 – Every night as Ram, Kamal and Krishna take off their boots outside their cramped rooms, they can see the shimmering silhouette of Qatar’s “Aspire” football complex.
Under its glowing domes, handpicked Qatari youths are drilled in preparation to play at the 2022 World Cup. The boys wear the latest £200 football boots and are trained by a former coach from Spain’s top league on a full-sized air-conditioned pitch sometimes used by Manchester United and Bayern Munich. In eight years’ time, these boys will carry the hopes of the richest per capita nation in the world in the opening match of football’s most prestigious event.
Aspire is just a couple of roads away from the lodgings where Ram and his friends live the other side of Qatar’s World Cup dream.
They came to Doha from impoverished parts of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka to help fit out a luxurious skyscraper overlooking the Persian Gulf. The Al Bidda Tower is a twisting vortex of glass that has thrust up alongside the gas company HQs whose vast revenues are bankrolling Qatar’s $200bn pre-World Cup building bonanza.
Dubbed the “tower of football”, it is dominated by the headquarters of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy – the powerful but scandal-hit government body tasked with organising the 2022 World Cup.
The men built a sleek white interior for the 38th and 39th storeys, which are now occupied by some of the supreme committee’s executives. No expense was spared by the royal clients. They fitted handmade Italian furniture, bespoke etched glass panelling and a state-of-the-art toilet that washes, dries and has a heated seat. They were supposed to be on modest wages – about £150 a month according to the terms with their employer, Lee Trading and Contracting – but have not been paid for months of labour and in some cases more than a year. They are sliding ever deeper into poverty. Families back home have had to take out high-interest loans to survive.
At nightfall Ram and the others finish their current black-market 50p-per-hour jobs, but instead of returning to one of the labour camps where most of Qatar’s 1.4 million migrant workers live, their minibus turns into a street of villas, an area where migrant workers are banned from living under Qatari law. This is their secret lodging house, where they have been trying to avoid detection by the Qatari police since Lee Trading collapsed and left them without vital permits.
Thirty-two men are squeezed into cockroach-infested bedrooms that are crammed with bunkbeds screened off only by towels. Food is kept in grout tubs on the floor, bathrooms are filthy and the tiles are ingrained with dirt. A stray cat toys with a piece of okra in the hall.
Ram, 26, from Nepal says he has been to the labour court about 15 times in a vain attempt to get their missing money. Each time it costs two days’ wages to get there and back but there has been no progress. He is intensely frustrated, cannot afford to travel to the court and is ready to give up.
“We are in very big trouble so I want to say to workers not to repeat our mistakes,” he says. “The government, the company: just provide the money. I am not angry with the spending of money by Qatar to bring the World Cup but we just expect our salary.”
Krishna, also from Nepal, has not been paid for any work for more than a year on the Al Bidda project. “I feel very bad about it, but that’s obvious,” he says. “I was working very hard but at the end of the day I didn’t get anything. Now we work illegally. It is very dangerous. If the CID come and we have no ID then they put us in jail.”
This has already happened to five of his colleagues. He says some of the workers are owed 11 months’ salary, others 13 months’ and adds that there has been no official help for them.
Qatar’s prime minister was specifically told about their plight when Amnesty International complained about the Al Bidda workers back in December. But nothing has happened for these men.
“We don’t have any way to get justice,” says Sri Lankan builder Kamal Nathan, 46. “Human rights groups came but still six months on there is no progress. It is a waste of our time, our health, our money.”
A statement from Qatar’s 2022 World Cup organising committee says it did not commission Lee Trading and has been using the offices temporarily. It says it is “heavily dismayed to learn of the behaviour of Lee Trading with regard to the timely payment of its workers” and “will continue to press for a speedy and fair conclusion to all cases”.
Unlike almost anywhere else in the world, the workers cannot legally take their labour anywhere else without permission from their employer. Making things worse, their passports have been taken from them and in any event under the Qatari system of labour sponsorship known as kafala, they can only leave the country with the permission of their employer or sponsor.
This was not just any project. Contract documents obtained by the Guardian show the fit out was commissioned by Katara Projects, a Qatari state entity under the auspices of the then heir apparent, Sheikh Tamim, who is now emir. The project director was Hilal Jeham al-Kuwari, the president of the Aspire Zone Foundation, the royal family’s elite sports foundation and also chairman of Katara. A spokesman for Aspire said the offices were intended for Katara.
“I went on site once and they didn’t even have water and they were working in 55C heat because there was no air conditioning,” the source says. “My pay was delayed at one point and they did something about it because I was a westerner.”
In November 2013, Amnesty International raised the case in person with the prime minister and interior minister of Qatar and later wrote to the ministry of labour asking officials to ensure the men received the salaries they were due, and to allow them to leave the country or find new jobs.
“It is deeply depressing that these men have still not received the wages they worked for and are living in appalling conditions many months after we brought their plight to the government’s and the client’s attention,” says James Lynch, researcher at Amnesty. “They have seemingly been abandoned. This case highlights the deep-rooted problems with Qatar’s sponsorship system and the inability of the court system to effectively deliver justice to migrant workers.”
Katara said it terminated the agreement with Lee Trading when it found out about the mistreatment of workers and it reported the managing director, Lim Ah Lee, and his Qatari partner, Khalid Al Hail, to the labour ministry for non-payment of wages.
“Every effort was made to repatriate the workers involved on the Al Bidda Tower project or transfer them to new employers. If there are employees who were not repatriated, did not find employment or did not receive compensation, we would be happy to engage in any effort with the ministry of labour and ministry of interior to rectify the situation.”
Pattern of exploitation
The Al Bidda workers’ predicament is far from unique. Despite recent assurances by the government that it will reform its labour system and remove the power that employers have over their workers, the Gulf state’s extraordinary ambition is still being enabled by exploitation and forced labour of some of the world’s poorest people.
The story repeats itself. Men from the poorest countries of the world are offered jobs at low but acceptable wages only to find, on arrival in Qatar, their pay slashed and then stopped altogether. The excuses come: the subcontractor hasn’t been paid; the money will come by Monday, but the pay does not arrive. Employers seize the workers’ passports and the only body that can issue a permit for a worker to leave Qatar is the employer himself. Changing jobs is equally impossible: according to Qatari law employers must issue a “non-objection certificate”.
It is modern slavery enforced not through shackles and whips, but by fiddled contracts, missing permits and paperwork and the Guardian has found it happening just down the road from the desert palace of Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Khalifa al-Thani.
The turn off the eight-lane Dukhan highway, just 20 minutes west from the vast royal desert palace compound, into Shahaniyah camp is a transition to a scene redolent of one of the poorest parts of south Asia. The road becomes a rocky track, street lights disappear and men in lunghis weave through the shadows past rubbish-filled gullies.
This is where 25-year-old Nepalese father-of-two Ujjwal Bishwakarma lives in squalor with colleagues who work six or seven days a week building car showrooms, apartments and supermarkets. Inside the low-slung concrete blocks, eight men sleep to a room. They work for a theoretical wage of around £8 a day. But 65 of them say they have not been paid for any of the work they have done since January by their employer, Ibex Contracting and Trading.
There are no showers. Instead men wash in broken and filthy squat toilet cubicles. The cisterns are not even connected to the water supply, bins overflow, the washing water is salty and the drinking water filter is only changed once in five months, workers say, causing stomach upsets. They can’t afford medicine and their employer has not provided medical cards granting access to free care.
Ujjwal left the Sindhuli district of central Nepal last autumn shortly before the birth of his second child, Milo, whom he has never seen. Without his remittances, his family has been forced to take a £660 loan from a private lender charging 48% interest a year. Every day he remains unpaid, the debt is mounting. His employer has taken his passport and he cannot move jobs because of Qatar’s labour laws.
“There’s nobody else to look after my family so they had to take the loan,” he says. “We have questioned [the company] time and again. In the past two months the company keeps on extending the date of providing salaries. They have extended the date four times so far. It is not good. Because the country is economically rich, the workers should be paid their fixed salaries. I am regretting coming to Qatar.”
The immigration document of another worker, Shanbu, which was stamped by the Nepalese government on 11 October 2013 before departure, shows he had agreed terms with Ibex to be employed as a foreman on a basic salary of £410 a month. But the contract signed with the employer on arrival was for £150 a month to work as a carpenter – a 64% cut. The men have been running up huge debts at the local grocery store.
“I am not happy,” Shanbu says. “My family members are asking me to come back if there is no good work [in Qatar] and apply for other countries. I am regretting [coming] now. The money I am earning here could have earned in Nepal.”
Reached by phone, the Ibex manager, Srikanth, explains: “My problem here is I signed a contract for 15m [rial, £2.4m] and I was supposed to receive my advances during March but it was delayed. I am expecting the payment at any moment.”
He says he will pay off their grocery debts and promises to pay the backdated wages within days, but when the Guardian checks, the money has not arrived.
“As far as my company is concerned I would never put people in this unfortunate situation but the market condition is like this,” he says. “I cannot escape from the market.”
In recent days the Guardian has contacted him again, to be told the workers were owed three months’ salary, not five, and that two months of that have now been cleared. But Ujjwal Bishwakarma, one of the workers, says their last payment was for April.
Srikanth says “the water for drinking and cooking has been addressed by regularly filling the water tank full of sweet water”, adding that new coolers have been provided with a double filter.
He says Ibex has started “regularising the medical card issues” and that in the meantime if anybody is unwell the firm provides treatment through a private clinic. He will not comment on the large discrepancy in wages on Shanbu’s contract signed in Nepal and the one signed in Qatar.
His recruitment agent in Kathmandu, Capital International Manpower, said Shanbu was “over-reacting” and that they sent him on a foreman’s contract because that is the permit that had been supplied by Qatar. “He is not [a] foreman, he is [a] mason,” the agency said. “He should think about his ability first and then only he can make [an] issue [out of the double contract].”
Death and injury
Old Tata buses rattle along Doha’s highways as the sun goes down, taking exhausted workers on the long drive back to their camps. On a bus pulling out of Lusail City, a new town north of Doha where a new stadium will be built to host the 2022 World Cup final, workers peel off headscarves and masks. Some rest their foreheads on their arms to sleep and let the evening air blow through the windows to cool them down. Others fish out mobile phones and click on to Facebook or text home to Chennai, Kathmandu, Fujian or Cebu.
Above the din of the engines, talk turns to how injury and sometimes death has become part of life on Qatar’s building sites.
Umesh Rai, a Nepalese plumber who has spent three years in Qatar, tells of several accidents even though he says his employer provided proper safety equipment.
“Six or seven months back there was an accident,” he says. “Some heavy object fell down and hit a person on the ground. And another case was four months back when scaffolding fell and hit a man’s head, smashing his helmet.”
There have been other confirmed accidents involving other contractors. Midmac, a major contractor working at Lusail, said a Filipino trainee driver was crushed to death by a truck in a stock area last year. “The truck went forward and ran over the guy,” says Clark White, the company’s health and safety manager. “From the finding of the client everything was in place safety-wise.”
The firm has also confirmed another incident where about 17 workers were injured when a huge steel cage moved unexpectedly and trapped workers. It says the injuries were not serious.
The packed trauma unit at Hamad hospital provides a snapshot of the routine problems workers face. It is a high-quality facility: the main entrance evokes a five-star hotel and migrant workers have free healthcare if they have a medical card. But there are 70 workers in the packed trauma waiting room, some having collapsed unconscious or vomiting because of the heat, others with head injuries. One grimacing worker is helped in bow-legged, clutching his groin.
Outside, construction workers shelter from the sun under trees waiting for their colleagues to be treated but are shooed away by a Qatari official.
One of the great mysteries is why so many young fit men are dying from what the hospital authorities describe as “sudden cardiac death”. In 2012 and 2013, 500 men from India, Sri Lanka and Nepal died like this. Whether it is caused by exhaustion, heat or something else remains unclear because the Qatari health authorities do not routinely carry out autopsies.
One such case was Rishi Kumar Kandel, 42, who flew out to Qatar from Nepal in February. Within five months his coffin had arrived back at Kathmandu airport. He had died suddenly in his labour camp bed after a hot day’s work on 23 May.
Kandel had borrowed money at 24% a year to pay the £500 agent costs but by the time he died he had only managed to send £170 back home. The company that employed him says it won’t pay compensation because he died of natural causes.
Back in Nepal his wife, Saraswati, has to face up to the debt as well as her grief. “No one should go to Qatar,” she says. “I don’t want what has happened to me to happen to any of the other wives, sisters or mothers. Nepali workers go to Qatar to work – so [the Qatari government] should also do something for us; maybe pay back our loans and other necessary things”.
She says her husband was hardly ever paid by his employer, and didn’t get the job or salary he was promised. He had been complaining of heat and headaches before he died. His death certificate says he died from “acute heart failure due to natural causes”.
The Nepalese government says 366 Nepalese died of heart failure between mid-2006 and April 2014 in Qatar; in neighbouring Saudi Arabia in the same period only 28 died of heart failure. This anomaly was acknowledged in the recently published report on the condition of migrant workers in Qatar by the law firm DLA Piper. The report called for an independent study to investigate migrant workers’ deaths by cardiac arrest amid theories that heat and exhaustion may play a role.
The room where Kandel slept in a labour camp on the outskirts of Doha, has now been abandoned by his former roommates because they are scared of what happened to him. “There’s a fear factor,” says Jitendra Chaudhary, a worker in the camp. “We worry that others might die. We all slept together after having dinner at around 10.30pm, but he didn’t wake up in the morning. He came from duty, ate dinner and slept. Our work starts at 4.45am. At that time we tried to wake Rishi up … but, he didn’t wake up. He was not sick. He used to work perfectly and was healthy.”
Secret trade union
Migrant workers’ punishing daily schedule is only broken on Friday afternoons when work stops, for most at least. In Saliya, the main industrial area, the temperature is in the mid 40s and the young men slip on their cleanest T-shirts and mill around the camps. Some carrying prayer mats dash to a makeshift mosque built from site huts. Others venture into central Doha where they gather on street corners to meet old friends from home. With migrant domestic workers also having the afternoon off, it is a rare chance to mix with women. It is also the moment a secret union meets.
Unions are banned in Qatar but in a room above a shabby Indian restaurant in Doha, 15 Nepalese workers rearranged the tables and chairs for a “totally illegal” support group meeting. At one end of the table are the veterans with eight years’ experience in Doha; at the other are fresh-faced new arrivals.
The men raise a closed fist salute, the international symbol of solidarity, and begin.
Topping the agenda is the recent announcement from the Qatari government of plans to reform the labour laws – an attempt by the authorities to address the appalling conditions workers face.
“We think they are only changing the terminology and not the sponsorship system, the agent system and the situation with passports and ID cards,” says one member. “Because if they really do change the rules it will slow down construction.”
Another says: “In fact it is getting worse than before because companies are anticipating the changes to the labour laws and so are making workers sign five-year instead of two-year agreements. Before, if we complete two years we can change companies; now we have to wait five years. Only yesterday they forced me to sign a five-year contract.”
One man says that during his spell in Qatar his wage has risen 7% while the cost of his food has doubled.
Imbalance of power
With 400,000 Nepalese, 500,000 Indians and 130,000 Bangladeshis toiling in Qatar, there are large blocks of workers on whom the emir relies to maintain his kingdom’s momentum. But the imbalance of power between workers and bosses is sometimes staggering.
Employers are supposed to pay compensation of around £40,000 to the families of dead workers but the Guardian was told of one case in which the workmates of a dead Nepalese labourer clubbed together to make a payment themselves because they feared their boss would sack them all if forced to pay up.
The governments of the migrants’ home countries also have to calculate the cost and benefit of lobbying for a better deal for workers. Qatar provides importance remittance income – migrant workers sent $13.5bn home from Qatar in 2012, according to Qatar Central Bank.
Sometimes the problem is a simple lack of diplomats. Nepal doesn’t even have an ambassador in place. Maya Kumari Sharma was recalled last September having called Qatar an “open jail”. The skeleton staff of five diplomats are overwhelmed by the problems of scores of labourers who turn up at its door each day. Qatari officials can be dismissive of complaints and often do not respond.
Everywhere you look workers appear trapped by the state’s contradictory attitude towards the role of the market in fuelling its development. The slovenly accommodation, low, late and missing pay, and unsafe workplaces all result in part from the freewheeling market economics Qatar encourages in the construction sector.
Contractors tussle to drive down prices and often must fight for payment themselves, even from fabulously rich Qatari clients. Yet workers are gripped in a vice of state control through the kafala system.
The ministry of labour said last month it had punished 200 companies in the first quarter of 2014 for labour law violations after inspections on 3,485 work sites targeting safety. It said it was launching a wage protection system involving workers being paid through trackable transactions to banks or exchange houses and is building hospitals exclusively for migrant workers.
But in the same month, Qatar abstained in an International Labour Organisation vote in favour of a protocol against forced labour that includes protection measures for migrant workers during recruitment and employment, including the obligation on employers to pay compensation and to face sanctions.
Stranded at the airport
For many the trouble starts as soon as they find themselves in the sleek arrivals lounge of Hamad international airport – a stunning new building which “sets new global standards in passenger convenience and service”. Every day dozens of migrants are left stranded by employers who fail to collect them.
Mukhtar Bax, 32, has flown in from Nepal with three friends to start a new life as a labourer, expecting a wage of £7.70 a day. For 12 hours, from 10pm to 10am he has been waiting to be picked up. “The driver for the company said he is going to have breakfast and them come and pick us up,” he says. “But we haven’t eaten anything.”
Further down the seating area are Haroon Ali and Nazhir Hussain Sheikh. Ali says he is “happy and excited”, but his friend is “tense and sad”. After many hours their company boss has still not arrived.
Another Nepalese man shows off his migration paperwork from his government. A footnote reads: “Best of luck for your bright future.”
For some, the deal is working. Money is being saved and sent home. For others, it is hard not to conclude their lives have been reduced to expendable commodities in a building boom where site hoardings proclaim with no hint of irony: “Qatar deserves the best.”
UK contractors ‘ignoring abuses’
Too many British companies are still turning a blind eye to serious labour abuse in Qatar, a senior UK construction executive has warned.
Some of the largest UK contractors and construction consultants have won contracts in the Gulf state on multibillion-pound projects but Stephen Lines, regional president of the Chartered Institute of Building, said some were ignoring the plight of migrant workers.
“When you are an expat you get too relaxed and it gets too easy and there are too many here that turn their back on this worker welfare issue,” he said. “I have asked people who come from very good backgrounds and they have never even been to a labour camp. They are thinking, ‘Am I going to get a Porsche or a Bentley?’ There are UK companies working here who have labour working for them in conditions just as bad as Qatari companies. They know who they are.”
Lines works for Qatar Rail, which is spending £20bn on a new rail network. He declined to name any firms he believed to be at fault.
Projects in Qatar offer lower profit margins than in the UK but their scale have attracted some of Britain’s largest building firms. Carillion, Laing O’Rourke and Balfour Beatty are among the contractors operating in Qatar while consultants include the architects Lord Foster and Zaha Hadid and construction management firms Atkins, EC Harris and Turner & Townsend. There is no suggestion they are among the firms Lines believes are at fault.
He said some companies were now “looking more into the workers’ problems” but urged more to “take responsibility”. British main contractors in Qatar do not directly employ site labour, rather it is done through subcontractors and Qatari partners, said Lines, who is based in Doha.
“British contractors can easily say they look after their staff, but what about the people working on site?”
Robert Booth is a news reporter on the Guardian. He previously worked on The Sunday Times and edited Building Design, the architecture newspaper.
Pete Pattisson is a video and photo journalist based in Kathmandu.
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