Qatar World Cup stadium workers toil in debt and misery

When the England team arrive at Al Bayt Stadium for their game against the United States in just over two months, they will be greeted by a stunning 60,000-seater arena built to look like a nomadic tent.

The stadium, arguably the finest in Qatar, will host matches from the opening game through to the semi-finals. If England win their group and reach this stage, they will play four games on the ground.

Equally impressive is the immaculate park that surrounds the stadium. The manicured lawns are dotted with fountains, streams, and a lake. The ducks play in the cool water. A running track winds around the stadium passing a number of immaculate practice grounds with grass like putting green.

Qatar’s 60,000-seat Al Bayt Stadium is meant to look like a Bedouin tent. Photograph: Pete Pattisson/The Guardian

Still the men who work day in and day out in the relentless heat and humidity to maintain this remarkable green space – watering the grounds, cutting the grass and painstakingly pulling weeds by hand – live in very different conditions.

At the end of each shift, they are driven for 40 minutes to the edge of the desert, where they are dropped off at a farm owned by their employer, the Al Sulaiteen Agricultural and Industrial Complex (SAIC). Inside, among rows of giant greenhouses, they return to their rooms in small, dilapidated cabins.

Some house three or four workers in single beds, others five or six in bunk beds, but all the Guardians saw were windowless, cramped and dirty. Towels draped between the upper and lower bunk beds provide what little privacy there is. Bottles of water, cooking utensils, and personal effects are piled up under the beds. The clothes hang on ropes hung on the walls. The camp is as squalid as anything this reporter has seen in nine years of reporting in Qatar.

Fifa and the local World Cup organizing body, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC), have repeatedly claimed that the tournament has been the catalyst for transforming living and working conditions low-wage workers, in Qatar and across the region, but the Guardian’s findings reveal serious flaws in the reform process.

Workers employed on World Cup-related projects are supposed to be given superior treatment under strict ‘worker welfare standards’, but in interviews this summer with workers employed by SAIC at three stadiums in the World Cup – Al Bayt, Al Janoub and Ahmad Bin Ali – the Guardian has heard allegations multiple breaches of these standards.

All of the workers interviewed, from Bangladesh, Nepal and India, say they were forced to pay illegal fees to agents in their own countries to secure their jobs.

“I paid 300,000 [Bangladeshi taka]says one worker, the equivalent of almost £2,700, a huge sum in Bangladesh. “Some pay a little more, some a little less, but everyone pays.”

The local World Cup organizing committee introduced a scheme in 2017 to encourage its contractors to reimburse the costs of recruiting their workers, but SAIC workers who spoke to the Guardian say they have not received nothing.

Camp cabins housing workers employed at several World Cup stadiums in Qatar. Photograph: Pete Pattisson/The Guardian

Most of the workers surveyed earn a base salary of 1,000 rials (£225) a month, the equivalent of around £1 an hour. Food and accommodation are provided by SAIC. The wage is the legal minimum in Qatar, but workers say they struggle to repay their recruitment fees, and associated debts, and send money to their families on that wage.

“The salary is very low, it is very difficult. I can earn that in India,” says a worker who, after deducting his expenses in Qatar, is able to send around £160 to his wife and four children each month.

Faced with relentless criticism of its treatment of low-wage migrant workers, Qatar announced a new law in 2020 that promised to stamp out abuses kafala system – under which workers were not able to change jobs – but workers say SAIC is refusing to release them.

“The company will not give [permission to leave]. You can only change if you go home, cancel your visa and reapply,” says one worker.

Another scoffs at the suggestion, saying, “If we could change jobs, everyone would leave!”

A room cluttered with personal effects. String-hung sheets provide the only privacy for bunk beds
One of the bedrooms in a camp housing workers employed at World Cup stadiums in Qatar. Photograph: Pete Pattisson/The Guardian

The World Cup Organizing Committee said: “We recognize that SAIC workers may still face challenges from their employers.” He encouraged SAIC workers to use his helpline to raise concerns.

During the hottest summer months, workers get up before dawn and head for Al Bayt Stadium – which cost £620million to build. At seven o’clock, the heat is unbearable, but Kabir* continues to water the grass and the trees.

He didn’t know he would be working at a World Cup venue when he came to Qatar, but that doesn’t seem to interest him. “I’m not excited about the World Cup,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t think we can even get into the stadium.”

The only thing he really cares about is his salary. His family depends on his meager income, but most of his salary is used to buy back the jewelery he gave to a moneylender so he could pay the £1,170 fee for his work.

“Qatar is a rich country, but they pay so little for the work we do,” says Kabir. “You can forget about a good salary here.”

The SC said it had “stayed true to its commitment to use the World Cup to bring lasting social change to our workers, to improve their working and living conditions”.

He cited a range of measures that have been taken to improve the working and living standards of workers, including improved housing, measures to minimize workers’ exposure to heat, legislation to introduce a minimum wage and to allow workers to change jobs, and a monitoring system to ensure that companies comply with the law.

“Individual cases of wrongdoing do not present a complete and accurate picture of the changes that have taken place in Qatar, where thousands of companies have adjusted their working practices to comply with new laws and regulations,” he said. -he adds.

The English Football Association said: “Any questions regarding the stadiums to be used during Qatar 2022 should be directed to the tournament organisers, Fifa.” He referred to an earlier statement in which he said: “We believe that there is evidence of substantial progress made by Qatar with regard to workers’ rights. However, we recognize that much remains to be done. »

Fifa said it was in contact with the SC regarding the allegations raised by SAIC employees in recent interviews. He added: “In addition to the broad measures already introduced, which aim to support workers involved in the preparation and delivery of the World Cup, Fifa has actively pushed for the implementation of broader labor reforms which apply to all businesses and projects across the country. and benefit all workers in Qatar.

SAIC did not respond to requests for comment.

* The name has been changed to protect his identity

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