December 7, 2022

Filipino Guardian

Sentinels of Filipino Free Press

Qatar risks an own goal for workers’ rights at the World Cup

6 min read

Al Janoub Stadium in Qatar. — QATAR2022.QA

PERINTHALMANNA/KATHMANDU, India/Nepal — Ali Aksar is cheering on Argentina to win the upcoming World Cup in Qatar — a tournament he will be watching on a large community screen near his home in southern India.

After driving hundreds of workers back and forth from stadium construction sites in Qatar’s capital, Doha, Mr Aksar returned home empty-handed.

No souvenirs, no gifts and most importantly no savings.

His dream of better wages, regular working hours and decent labor laws came to nothing even though he left home for 18 months to help transform Qatar’s arid landscape into a venue for 64 televised matches and some 1.2 million visitors .

“I didn’t get anything extra or earn anything more because (the) World Cup is happening,” the 33-year-old said from a soccer field near his home in Perinthalmanna, Kerala.

“Recently we had to pawn some family gold (for a loan) because expenses have skyrocketed. What I earned in Qatar was just enough for my family’s daily expenses at home. I don’t have any savings, although I’ve often worked overtime to earn more.”

Qatar, too, has dashed some of its dreams as it had hoped the World Cup, which begins on Sunday, would present Doha as a model place to do business, rather than being a magnet for bad press about unpaid wages, stifling conditions and breaches of contract.

Labor rights activists say Qatar has failed workers by failing to meet reform commitments it made to become the first Arab country to host the tournament.

Qatar has dismissed calls for a $440 million fund to compensate workers for labor rights violations, including injuries and deaths, citing a raft of reforms of its own including higher minimum wages and an end to exit permits.

The International Labor Organization has said reforms passed in Qatar have improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers and are “important to the region”.

Isobel Archer, Gulf program manager at the nonprofit Business & Human Rights Resource Center, said that “migrant workers are the real beating heart of the tournament.” “However, our research shows that labor reforms in Qatar have not been adequately or consistently implemented, with little improvement on the ground,” she said in a statement.

Between 2016 and November 2022, her organization recorded 346 cases of abuse involving Indian or Nepalese workers, with complaints often linked to a group of workers.

About 85% of Qatar’s 3 million people are foreign workers, mostly from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kenya and the Philippines.

In an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, a Qatari government official said: “Qatar has always recognized that there is still work to be done, particularly to hold unscrupulous employers to account.”

“The reality is that we have always committed to a zero-tolerance policy in enforcing our laws and already now we are seeing the number of crimes falling year on year as employer compliance decreases increases.”

Mr Aksar’s neighborhood – typical of the region – is football crazy.

A mockup of the World Cup trophy, which 32 teams will compete for, has been set up outside a local restaurant; Players’ posters are up and football shirt sales are on the rise.

Fans of footballer Lionel Messi even installed a giant cut-out of their Argentine hero in the middle of a river in Kerala to mark the growing excitement ahead of kick-off.

While local football clubs are making plans for special community screenings of the games, there is also a fuss about World Cup “shutdown” jobs being advertised by recruitment agencies for stewards, street vendors, cleaners and waiters during the tournament.

The “shutdown” jobs last three months, offer free visa and passport services and a higher compensation package.

But activists say some may not be legitimate, pointing to pending labor grievances.

“There was a request I received from a friend in Doha for 300 riders for the World Cup,” said a recruiter who asked not to be named.

“There was no real contract the workers would receive, no benefits or insurance and they would have to return after three months. In some cases the pay is higher, but in case of mishap it is risky for workers. I said no.'”

But such jobs are a major draw, especially after the pandemic has forced thousands of migrants to return home, often unpaid.

WhatsApp and Facebook groups are being inundated with workers desperate to verify that the new job postings are legitimate.

Electrical engineer Hassan Shaik, 39, who helped build new subway lines to stadiums, is a member of one such Facebook group.

“If you get a decent visa from a good company, the salaries are good,” he said from his parents’ home in Kerala.

“There’s a lot of hype around the World Cup, so people need to be more careful when looking for a job.”

In Mallapuram – a district in the Indian state of Kerala – the legacy of mass migration from the Gulf is pervasive, with food stalls selling Middle Eastern classics from mandi to shawarma.

The area is locally called “mini-golf” and every family has at least one relative who works in golf, most in construction or hospitality.

This migration route has brought in remittances that have sustained local economies, helping families build lavish homes, fund weddings, or buy better education and health care.

Haseebudheen K, 28, belongs to one such family.

In July, he swapped rings with his new wife and celebrated the wedding with a party for family and friends.

The wedding cost him around 400,000 rupees ($5,008) – half of which he earned setting up exhibition counters ahead of the World Cup, with the rest being borrowed.

Following in the footsteps of his father, who worked as a tailor in Saudi Arabia for 27 years, Haseebudheen spent more than two years in Doha watching the city transform before the World Cup.

“I’ve only heard that it’s gotten better for workers now that salaries are paid directly into accounts and online grievance mechanisms are available,” Haseebudheen said.

“I saved 10,000 rupees for two years and used it for my wedding. I still have a loan to pay and will return to Doha, maybe in time to see some football games.”

Football fever is also high in Nepal.

Bishwo Sunar grew up in Nepal admiring the silky skills of Brazilian legend Ronaldo; now he is 33 and wants France to lift the cup this year.

As much as he would have liked to watch a game live at one of the stadiums where he worked as an air conditioning technician, Mr Sunar’s family wanted him to get home – and quickly.

“My family was worried because it had been a long time (I was gone). My employer wasn’t good either. So I put family before the World Cup and went home,” he said.

Mr Sunar’s memories of working in Qatar are one of intense heat, long shifts and late wages – an experience also echoed by Santosh Kumar Yadav, who was tasked with setting up the wiring for three stadiums.

“The job wasn’t that hard, but it would be difficult on hot summer days,” said the 29-year-old Nepali, who is back home with his wife and newborn baby.

“Even though I worked indoors, the new buildings didn’t have air conditioning. I’ve also worked in the basements of stadiums, where there was limited access to fresh air… I’ve heard of people collapsing from the heat.”

Mr. Sunar used his monthly income of 1,400 riyals (US$373) to open a poultry farm with 300 hens, though he wishes he could have built a house.

“Building a new house is still a dream for me,” he said. “It was my bad luck that I couldn’t even build a decent house for eight years in the extreme heat in Qatar.”

Still, the lure of big bucks remains high in the region.

Mr Aksar’s local elected representative in Perinthalmanna has long been concerned about the Gulf’s appeal to young Keralites, despite ongoing stories of abuse.

“Many finish school and get in line for a job in the Gulf hoping to make a lot of money,” said Najeeb Kanthapuram, an ardent fan of the Brazil team.

“It’s a vicious cycle that we’re trying very hard to break with better education and job opportunities…but right now, it’s all about Qatar.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation

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