As the 2022 FIFA World Cup is being broadcast around the world, we discuss the exploitation of Southasian migrant workers who built stadiums for the tournament in Qatar.
In our latest Himal Twitter Spaces session, recorded on 25 November, we speak to Namrata Raju, India Director at Equidem Research and Consulting, which has released a report on migrant workers in Qatar. Bhadra Sharma, a journalist for the New York Times in Nepal, was scheduled to speak but was unable to join the Twitter Space due to technical difficulties.
The full discussion is now available on Soundcloud, Spotify and Apple Podcasts. This is an edited selection of excerpts from the Twitter Spaces recording. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.
Himal Southasian: There’s been a lot of reporting on how the Qatar World Cup is the most expensive ever, at around USD 220 billion – but Equidem’s report has revealed some of the hidden costs and the outright exploitation and abuse that happened behind the scenes when it came to building these stadiums. Could you tell us about the key findings and statistics discovered while you were talking to these migrant workers?
Namrata Raju: When we talk about our report from Equidem’s side, it is a culmination of 18 months’ worth of work, where investigators who are from migrant worker communities themselves collected this data, and it is against a larger backdrop where there is a very high fear of reprisal among workers for speaking out about the experiences that they have been undergoing. It is also a context where trade unions are banned.
In terms of what happened with the investigation, our team spoke to close to 1000 workers during this period, and all of these workers were Africans and Southasians. What workers alleged predominantly were issues such as nationality-based discrimination and issues such as wage theft. You have workers who work for many months on end without being paid their monthly salaries, or in some cases facing wage deductions. Then you have situations where workers were facing a lot of overwork, and again, not being paid for this. There are a number of other labour rights violations that have come up over the course of our investigation.
HSA: There has been a counter-narrative in response to some of the criticism around the violations that were uncovered around building these stadiums, about how any criticism of Qatar, especially coming from the West, is hypocritical. We saw FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, referencing this and making a speech where at one point he said he feels like a migrant worker. As someone who has worked on and researched migrant workers in the Southasian region, what are your thoughts on this?
NR: There’s a lot to unpack here. First, since you brought up Infantino’s comments – I think it’s actually quite appalling. To be quite direct about it, I think it’s a slap in the face of every migrant worker who is Southasian or African who has worked in those stadiums. If Infantino really knows what it means to be a migrant worker, then I assume he has been in situations where he hasn’t been paid for months on end, or he has been in situations where he has worked in extreme heat and hasn’t had access to water.
This is a context where workers have faced very egregious labour rights violations. To speak of this in such a flippant manner, whether it is in terms of migrant workers or any of the other minority groups that he alluded to, is nothing short of appalling. Even when he alluded to the LGBTQ+ community, there are plenty of LGBTQ+ people from both the Khaleej and the larger Middle East who have been fighting for their rights for many decades now. I was personally incensed when I heard some of these comments as well.
There have been a lot of critiques, not just coming from Western human rights groups but also a lot of actors from across the Global South who are human rights actors, including organisations like Equidem, who have been raising this issue. We all come from countries that know what it means to have been colonised and are still in the process of decolonising ourselves in some ways.
The other aspect of it is how the Western media has covered it. One of the things that worried me is, if you for example look at the LGBTQ+ issue, people have often alluded to the fans who are going in to visit Qatar, but what about the Qataris there? Do people think that there are no queer folk in Qatar? I think that it is important to remember that rights violations are rights violations, no matter where they are in the world. Whether it is Infantino or the Qatari authorities, they can’t fob off rights violations that Equidem has uncovered in this massive investigation just by crying wolf in this situation. It’s quite inexcusable.
One last point I wanted to add is that Qatar has indeed put reforms in place, which is something to be applauded. So, ever since the 2017 ILO–Qatar technical cooperation agreement, there have been a raft of reforms introduced. But these remain on paper. We see so many workers facing wage theft or overwork or simply working in conditions of extreme heat and not having sufficient rest – these are the kinds of issues that workers have alleged.
HSA: Could you go a little bit more into what these improvements and labour reforms are? And you said that they are actually on paper – which is exactly what we wanted to get into.
NR: When we talk about the Kafala system, I think the important thing to first ask is, what is this system? This system is essentially a sponsorship system where you have the kafeel, or employer, who is the sponsor of the worker, and it a two-tier labour market where you have one set of laws and policies and frameworks which cater to workers who are nationals and an entirely different set of these which cater to non-nationals. This system exists via various permutations and combinations of their own national laws in each of these different states in the larger Arab Gulf. In the Qatari case – again, this something to be applauded – there have been a lot of reforms, especially since 2018. One of the issues has been recruitment because workers have been paying these exorbitant recruitment fees. One is, setting up Qatar visa centres to regulate recruitment. Another is, freeing up the requirement for the worker to take permission from the employer before they change jobs. Another is, establishing a non-discriminatory minimum wage, and they have even passed some standards to prohibit outdoor work during extreme heat. This is just a handful of examples, there are many more reforms that have come into place.
But, most unfortunately, what we saw in our report and what workers alleged was that their experience is a far cry from the image that is being touted of reform. And I do think that reform processes, just to simplify it, basically have two layers. The first layer is implementing policies and frameworks and ensuring those protections are there for workers. And the second is actually having a governance system to make sure that actually occurs in practice. Unfortunately, the second place is where we see the big loophole. One example is, there were workers in our report who alleged that all of these construction companies would move workers, geographically, away from specific worksites when they knew that the FIFA inspection committees were to be visiting that day. By moving the workers away, they are literally placing a physical barrier between workers and being able to use whatever mechanisms there are in place. And this includes the Qatari royal family’s HBK [ Hamad bin Khalid] group, where workers allege this happened.
HSA: You raised a point about discrimination based on nationality, and I found that quite interesting because from what I could tell, there was a certain hierarchy within the workers and even between Southasian workers. Could you lay out what that hierarchy is and how it was decided which workers received better treatment and why?
NR: When you think of a cake which is tiered, that’s essentially what we’re talking about when it comes to nationality-based discrimination. Within this tiered cake, people who are at the bottom are the ones who are treated the worst and the people at the top are the ones who are treated better. On the one hand, you have a set of laws and frameworks which allows for this to happen – which is why I was saying Qatar has been reforming. And then the second is, you have actual practices that have been in place for a very long time now. This has been happening since the influx of migrants, for example from Southasia, into the region since the oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s. The way this pans out can be in different types of things. One example is a worker may get paid less if they are Kenyan versus Indian. They have these types of systems versus Indians, Nepalis, Kenyans, Ethiopians, all of these workers are facing a guise or hue of this discrimination. Speaking directly from the report, there were some instances where workers alleged that they were treated differently. Although they were all employed in the same job or in the same capacity, only workers of certain nationalities would be expected to do the riskier jobs.
HSA: FIFA as an organsation has been dogged by allegations of corruption, including money laundering, and some of it is specifically centred around the Qatar bid. What are your thoughts on this, and on FIFA’s role, particularly as it pertains to migrant workers, if any?
NR: Unfortunately, from the path and tone FIFA is taking at the moment, they are what they are claiming not to be, in the sense that Infantino made this comment about colonisers and how Europeans should not say anything. But by taking that tack, it’s actually sports-washing and labour-washing is what this amounts to at this moment. One of our larger concerns is the role that FIFA has played in this context. Are they looking to be a colonial and patriarchal organisation in 2022? One would hope that it is more forward-looking.
This is why one of our asks of FIFA has been to make sure that all of these workers who have not been paid for so long finally get the dues that are owed to them. We’re hoping that this will still be done. I think FIFA is actually at its moment of reckoning, where it can look forward and say, are we going to be an institution which looks to the future? We’re in 2022, we should have institutions that are, as you said, beyond borders, which don’t discriminate against migrant workers just because they come from Asia or Africa, or the colour of their skin or their gender. Unfortunately, by their role and the tone in which they are speaking at the moment, it’s a far cry from what it could be. They could still leave a positive legacy.
HSA: Quick follow-up question based on that: there’s a hashtag #payupFIFA that’s been trending – do you think there’s a case to be made for reparations, either from FIFA or the Qatar government?
NR: I think there’s definitely a case to be made for reparations, because these workers are the ones who have really gone into the mortar of these stadiums in which we are watching the World Cup being played. These are air-conditioned stadiums. In the Qatari context, which is impacted by climate change like much of the rest of the world, working in situations of extreme heat – despite all of that, these workers have not been paid their basic wages or in some cases not been paid their overtime or end-of-service benefits.
Earlier you alluded to the costs of this entire phenomenon, because it is a phenomenon, an economic phenomenon really, and what we think it is that workers should be paid. One of our big asks of FIFA – ourselves as well as a number of our fellow labour rights organisations from around the world have been asking to set up a compensation fund for workers so that they can still get compensated. Because a lot of these workers, for example, who are back in Southasia, have come home now, and they had families dependent on these wages, so there is a knock-on effect that could actually even last a generation. That’s something even we will have to keep an eye on in the region. From the Qatari perspective, one of the big worries is that there is no trade unionism, because these trade unions are banned and workers have no voice, so on that front, we’ve been asking them to establish a migrant workers’ centre.
HSA: I believe you made a number of recommendations. But apart from reparations, if you could go into what more you think could be done to protect the rights of these workers.
NR: I think a lot of it links to the previous question we were just discussing which is that there should be some avenue for migrant workers to voice their experiences. Because trade unions are heavily curtailed, that avenue doesn’t exist at the moment. A good place to start would be to set up this migrant workers’ centre where workers are actually able to voice what they’re experiencing without punitive action, fear of reprisal, because that is what workers are worried about. That’s the first thing.
The second thing would be to continue on the pathway of reform, that I must say has already commenced. We have begun this journey on our pathway to reform. What does it look like? How can we be leaders on this front in the larger region? Both Qatar and FIFA actually have a moment here, this is an opportunity, I hope they don’t lose this opportunity to signal to the rest of the world what we could be, what they could be, what any sporting event of this size could look like. And one part of that is continuing on the pathway to reform and making sure that there is a governance system which actually checks that whatever laws and policies are in place are actually being implemented.
HSA: What do you think should also change on the part of, for example, labour employment agencies?
NR: Even with labour employment agencies, this is part of a larger interesting discussion on recruitment and recruitment processes. From the Qatari perspective, now they’ve set up these visa centres, which is a good thing because it is a stab at the regulation of recruitment processes. I think what we need to keep doing is working on this, also thinking about what are the different stakeholders in this larger picture.
One of the stakeholders is companies. We also need to hold companies accountable for recruitment processes. One example of a very simple thing that a company could do, which I don’t think actually takes too much time, especially for some of these large companies which have capital at their disposal, it’s things like just vetting the recruitment agent, making sure you’re doing regular vetting process with the recruitment agent, or asking workers once they emigrate, how was your emigration process? Did you pay any fees? Did you get reimbursed? Making sure that workers do get reimbursed if they have paid a fee. As per what we call the Employer Pays Principle, this bill should be actually footed by the employer, which is the fee related to recruitment.
One last thing I will add is, in terms of this larger question of recruitment agents and sub-agents, there’s a lot of great research from around the world that has been coming out on this, and I think we need to keep doing that because it is also not that simple to say that all of these recruitment agents are fraudulent. There are many who are, but there are also many who are actually sort of playing this essential role for migrant workers to help them go overseas in search of a better future, in search of better wages and better livelihoods.
HSA: There were also points in the report where you spoke about good practices followed by some employers. But I was curious to know why the experiences of workers were so different in the different worksites, and what were some of the measures that employers prioritised, of the ones that did implement good practices?
NR: There were definitely some good practices that came up in our report, and you can see the companies with which these are linked on our website, which has the full text of the report as well. Some examples of what companies were doing which could go a long way, is just making sure that your grievance mechanism is working. One is that you have a grievance mechanism, then the second is, when I say grievance mechanism – when a worker submits a grievance, there’s actually a fair process of review that goes into that. We’re also talking about a system in which we need to think about questions such as worker accessibility. For example, are workers able to access a grievance portal or mechanism or system in their own language? Are they comfortable? Do they trust it? These are systems that we need to think about in the longer run. Companies which actually had good practices had at least started that.
Other examples are companies which were actually thinking about health and safety in a more holistic way. Of course, to protect workers during COVID-19 is important, but this is a larger issue with migrant workers in general – it’s a question of a more holistic approach to health. Companies which were looking to do this are the ones that started down the pathway of taking these kinds of measures to protect workers. It would go a long way to think about any of these systems in a more holistic way, whether it’s grievances or health and safety.
HSA: Something that was also reported on in the context of the World Cup were instances of harassment, especially sexual harassment experienced by female migrant workers. Were there any instances of this or other forms of gender-based harassment and/or violence that you encountered while you were researching this report?
NR: The gender angle always crops up in various ways. Equidem actually released a report some months ago on the hotel sector. This was on FIFA partner hotels in Qatar and the wider region. There were some workers alleging situations of gender-based violence. If we step back a little, this is a question in general for the larger labour market. The way we see gender cropping up, as researchers on this region for some years now, is in multiple ways. On the one hand, you have situations where gender crops up in how a woman is employed. Some jobs may be deemed more suitable for men than women, so that’s one example where you face gender cropping up. Then you have situations, as you were alluding to, where this actually takes the guise of women experiencing different forms of violence. It could be physical, it could be verbal, it could be sexual, and there are definitely cases where women experience that and report that. There are so many reports, not just in these sectors that we’re talking about – for example, in hospitality – but it even comes up in cases of domestic work. And again, there’s a lot of work being done on this where you see the line between a woman’s workplace and home essentially being blurred, and on account of that being rendered more vulnerable to different forms of exploitation. So, gender crops up there as well. And then you have other issues– for example, gender cropping up in the guise of women being paid differently from men, or even things like migration hurdles being more difficult than for men or just essentially different than for men.
This is more my personal hunch – there’s more work to be done on this front, so I must caveat that – but I think that we should be looking at whether it is more women who tend to emigrate informally as well, because of various migration hurdles that they may face – whether it is procedurally, legally and simply because of their gender.
HSA: Given the fact that so many are looking to migrate for work, given economic constraints and crises, how big of a problem is trafficking in Qatar, to your knowledge, and did you encounter any people who spoke about trafficking as an issue?
NR: First, I will refer to what I think we should all be aspiring to, which is safe migration. Despite all of this – whether it is me personally, or Equidem as an organisation, or larger labour rights groups in this space – most of us just want to see that migration is safe. We don’t want to see migration being curtailed in any way, or migration necessarily being promoted too much. It should be a space where this is balanced.
The second is, speaking more as a labour expert, to my knowledge this does occur in the larger region. There has been quite a bit of research done on this. There are so many measures that can be taken to think about these issues. One is making sure that from any of our ends, the origin states – whether it’s in Southasia, Africa or other developing states – we’re talking about trying to make sure that workers are equipped and empowered. And what that means is, for example, them knowing what they are heading into, but without making workers feel like they are terrified and that they can’t cope with it, because I think workers can if they are given the tools to do so. That’s one example of what can be done.
If you start to improve things institutionally, legally, procedurally, and from a policy perspective, so that if something does go awry, workers do have access to protections. One of the important things to remember in the context of trafficking is to make sure that we are clamping down on the informal migration side. So that means that the process of emigration should be made seamless for workers and then they have access to information in whatever languages they are most comfortable in. We need to be thinking about these things from the perspective of workers who are emigrating. I would urge any institution to think along those lines. And I do think that there has been a lot of work done on this around the world, but there’s just so much more to be done.
HSA: Without revealing any personal details, to your knowledge, did any of the workers face any consequences for speaking to you, given the findings of your report? Did you find any employers trying to identify who had spoken to you? What was the response and did you face any pushback as well once the report went online?
NR: To my knowledge, this has not happened in the context of our report. Because Equidem is a labour rights organisation and a human rights organisation, we follow very strict human rights methodologies, so this means that everything is central to the worker. We take a worker-first approach to any of this work. Obviously, unless there are certain cases where there are public-facing whistleblowers, all of the workers have their identities protected and we made sure that this was always the case. We also followed the other side of the human rights methodologies process, which is, we wrote to every single company in this report and gave them the right of reply. And if I recall correctly, there are about four companies who responded denying the allegations, and you can see all of their responses in detail on our website.
I do think this is an important question, because workers are operating in this larger system where they have no avenue to voice what they are going through. I think the important thing to underscore here as well is that some of these workers are under two levels of surveillance that they’re grappling with. One is from the perspective of fearing punitive action for speaking out from the Qatari authorities. And the second is from their employers. I do think that over the course of this investigation, workers have been worried about pushback from their employers in terms of, for example, heightened surveillance even from the employer level.
HSA: We received a question about safety hazards, referring to the deaths that happened while building this stadium. They wanted you to go a bit more into that.
NR: In terms of deaths, I think that this is an important discussion that has been occurring. There were two cases of death that workers alleged in our report when speaking to the investigative team, and this was in relation to the building of stadiums. I think this goes back to a larger issue. One is that when you look at the figures on deaths, you have the Supreme Committee reporting that there are 37 deaths that have occurred, and of these 3 are workplace related. This raises the larger concern regarding what is the transparency about worker wellbeing. There should be greater transparency regarding worker wellbeing, both when workers are alive and when workers are dead. I think that’s the important thing to remember when it comes to this discussion on worker deaths. It also points to some larger concerns that the labour rights community has around the world. This is a situation where workers are working in extreme heat, it renders them more vulnerable to various physical problems and it could even result in deaths. So, these are important things to bear in mind when it comes to the worker deaths issue.
The main thing to remember is ensuring that there is transparency, ensuring that there is sharing of data, ensuring that you’re actually submitting – whether it is the Supreme Committee, stadiums or companies – ensuring you’re submitting yourselves to transparent review processes to ensure that we’re all not wondering how many people died. We shouldn’t be in this situation where that is vague. A lot needs to be discussed about what is happening to workers also when they are alive, because it shouldn’t be a situation where you’re damned if you’re alive and damned if you’re dead. And unfortunately, from what so many workers alleged to the Equidem investigative team, it definitely sounds like that was the case.
HSA: Another question we got is about living conditions, asking whether you knew any details about the living conditions of the migrant workers outside of the workplace and what the workers said about what their quarters were like while they were working on the stadiums.
NR: There is information on this in our report. From what we saw of living conditions, again there are definitely some best-practice examples. But these living conditions issues also point to a lot of questions we have been all thinking about globally during this period, which is, how can you have so many workers confined to a room, in a context where we’re also talking about social distancing? A lot of the workers who spoke to Equidem’s team alleged that they were facing COVID-19 exposure during different periods of their work. This is also another important context for us all to remember, that even when we speak of living conditions, we’re talking about living conditions not just on their own, which is important in and of itself, but in connection also to a larger pandemic that was sweeping across the world.
One of the concerns that gets raised during this is, are workers able to have social distancing in contexts where you have so many workers shoved into one room? Those are the kinds of issues we’re talking about and I think this raises the question for Qatar and questions in general for emigrants around the world, for companies doing work that hire migrant labour around the world. We should be looking to make sure that workers are protected, whether in their places of accommodation or whether in their workplace always, because they are playing such a pivotal role in economic development, and things like a pandemic throw the importance of that question into even greater relief. So, what should our protections look like in the face of a pandemic?
HSA: Journalists who were seeking accreditation for the World Cup were apparently asked to agree to the state’s conditions to not film or photograph in these private businesses and industrial zones, and I believe that Reporters Without Borders also noted that this alludes to certain sensitive areas where journalists have covered violations of migrant worker rights in the past. Could you, in that context, talk about the role of the media, especially the Western media – what role it is playing in terms of shaping the discussion about migrant worker rights issues in Qatar?
NR: An important angle to bear in mind when it comes to access to different areas, what can happen is that employer surveillance sometimes gets upped in certain areas. Again, this can happen in any context where the power dynamics between employers and workers are so skewed in favour of employers. One of the things I have personally been concerned about during this pandemic – and I really hope that the world looks to change and Qatar looks to change – is things like migrant workers’ phones being taken away. To caveat – I’m not talking about our report, I’m just saying this in general, one of the worrying trends we have seen is these workers who are such an important cog in the economies of so many countries around the world, there are attempts by employers to control them. In such cases, access to worker camps and things like that becomes even more difficult.
The second thing to highlight in terms of media – there are goods and bads. On the one hand, I see there has been a lot of reporting from Western media, which frankly I don’t think is particularly well informed. I don’t think it makes sense to paint cartoons of people from around the Arab world in a distasteful manner. Some of the Western media does not understand what migration means. Migration does not mean you adopt one identity. Migrant means that you have many identities and you should be allowed to embrace them all. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening, so I am disappointed by a lot of the media coverage.
On the flip side, I have seen a lot of journalists trying to be more informed from wherever they are in the world, including the West, and those are the things that are extremely heartening to see. So, I see this mix of things when it comes to the media. But one of the things I would urge, whether it is the Qatari authorities or FIFA and Infantino commenting about Europeans, I wish he would look at some of the coverage from around the Global South. Because there are actors from around the Global South, and I wonder if it is his bias that results in him listening to only what the Western media is saying. Perhaps he could pick up some of what the media is saying from our parts of the world too.