Qatar’s forgotten migrant workers stuck in a ‘prison where you can work’ | World Cup 2022

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Isaac* and Emmanuel* would have watched the World Cup final if they could have, but work came first. While Lionel Messi was rewriting history they moved through one of Qatar’s opulent shopping malls, area by area, fulfilling the cleaning tasks their employer had assigned.

It was not too hard to glean what was going on, and sometimes Isaac would try to make his old Nokia phone strain for updates. But football, and especially football as inaccessible as this, was really a remote concern. Walking past designer handbags, perfumes and suits every day feels like a trudge through vacant, empty space. The young Ghanaian men are in their third month here and are yet to be paid a penny.

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“They told us they would pay this month but they told us that the previous times too,” says Isaac. “I have no money. I’m not happy at all. People tell you before you come here that it’s better and that, with hard work, you can get everything you want. But it’s just not like that.”

It is mid-evening and company buses have just dropped them off from another potentially fruitless shift. The daily return of Doha’s migrant workers is a sight few visitors will have witnessed over the past month, partly because some organisations were incentivised to keep their staff at home during the tournament in an attempt to ease congestion.

For several hours from about 4pm, vehicles chug along the gridded, heavily polluted capillaries of the city’s remote south-west and pour employees back into their labour camps en masse. It is a bleak, unsettling scene: the men deployed to keep an entire state running are being shuttled straight from one confinement into what is, effectively, another.

We are in one such camp, the precise whereabouts of which will remain undisclosed. It contains a small sports facility, no more than a concrete basketball court with goals; orientation becomes difficult after nightfall but Emmanuel and Isaac offer directions before entering one of the drab, uniform three-storey blocks that occupy almost a square kilometre. The harsh glare of lights from atop each building makes five-a-side possible. Two players shudder into one another and land heavily on the rough surface. There is brief concern, inquiries quickly offered in different languages, but they are both fine. If you did not carry a certain toughness before arriving here, it helps to learn quickly.

“You need it,” says Moses*, an articulate Ugandan who is taking his turn to watch from the side. “In the end, this is just a big prison where you can work. Nobody would be here if they had any other option, and Qatar knows it. What we are seeing here is modern slavery.”

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Qatar: beyond the football



It was a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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Moses works in security at a different mall: he has risen to a position of greater responsibility and is embarrassed when teammates who double up as colleagues shout “captain” as they run past. He has seen what happens when things get too much. A friend was taken to the edge by the combination of long hours, low pay, sometimes unsanitary living conditions and extended time away from family that are facts of everyday life here. “He was so traumatised that the only option was to send him to the bosses and insist they booked him a one-way flight home,” Moses says. “He was fine when he came but Qatar changed him. Not everyone can endure it.”

The game carries on. Lusail Stadium is 20 miles away but this is really a different universe. A young Nepali wearing an Argentina shirt arrives to offer at least something in common, scores, laughs and leaves again soon after. Play will continue for hours more with a changing cast: football after work, or before it if you are on nights, is the only physical outlet in the camp.

There is not always time for it. Moses usually worked 12-hour days before the World Cup, essentially becoming 14 when travel was factored in, with no extra payment. He tells of an event this year, run by a major Qatari sporting organisation, that demanded security staff work until the final guests had left. That meant finishing at about 2am every day, returning to work on the 5am bus. “Those who complained had their contracts terminated,” he says. “You can’t do anything against our bosses here. You can only go, get up again and work the next day.”

During Qatar 2022, Moses’s days were reduced to eight hours. The impact on his lifestyle and mental wellbeing has, he says, been marked. “We’ll see whether or not it stays that way. I’m sure things will change because of the World Cup, and not in a positive way. I expect things to return to how they were before. A period of 29 days cannot change what’s been happening for the last five or 10 years.”

Moses is, like several others, happy to share his experiences. Some are warier and others, such as the Kenyan man sitting on a broken-down motorcycle five minutes from the pitch, say they cannot trust anyone. But there is a consensus that, while the focus diverts from Qatar’s glittering carnival of football, the conversation around workers’ conditions must not end.

Being forgotten is the worst thing that could happen to people such as Geoffrey*, a tall and deeply spoken Ghanaian who lives alongside eight compatriots in an apartment with a tiny common space and three single‑sized bedrooms. Each holds a three-tiered bunk bed and this is comfortable by labour camp standards, both here and elsewhere. Geoffrey knows of equally small rooms housing five or six men. Illnesses run riot in such conditions; in 2020, Amnesty International raised the alarm about the danger caused by Covid‑19 in the area’s camps.

Argentina celebrate their momentous victory on Sunday.
Argentina celebrate their momentous victory on Sunday. Photograph: Paul Childs/Reuters

“It’s important to remember us,” he says. “When people get to know what we are going through here, maybe bodies like the WHO or UN can help us. But the biggest thing for me is about the salaries: it’s very tough.”

Each month Geoffrey, who also cleans at a mall, earns the minimum wage of 1,000 riyals (£225). It is barely enough to survive on, even when an extra subsidy for accommodation and a small allowance for food are added, when you are here to provide for your family. Social activities such as watching football in the fan zone intended for workers are off the agenda: Geoffrey and his roommates were reduced to watching World Cup games on any phone that could stream them. He describes himself as “lonely and bored” and laughs when asked about daily life in general. Plenty is being held back.

Qatar introduced the salary threshold last year but several workers who spoke with the Guardian said it was not always adhered to and that employees routinely pay scant attention to the government’s reforms. Isaac, whose example seems among the starkest, elaborates. “I don’t mind Qatar as a country but a lot of companies are doing bad things and the government doesn’t know,” he says. “They don’t pay you or they treat you badly. That’s the problem we are facing.”

Nowadays migrant workers can report abuses such as missed wage packets to the ministry of labour, anonymously in theory, but Isaac says he knows of cases where an employee has been paid after the government’s intervention only to be identified by the company and dismissed. One of the most common sanctions mentioned to the Guardian is some companies’ habit of docking a worker two days’ salary for missing a day’s work, which is not uncommon due to physical or mental fatigue.

Isaac may put the onus on his managers but others are more critical of Qatar. A frequent theme is alleged racism displayed towards African workers. They tend not to mix with their Asian counterparts beyond work, despite living in adjacent quarters, and believe they are regarded differently by locals. Kwame*, who lives with Geoffrey and is a carpentry assistant for a construction firm, describes the feeling of being treated as an underclass. “What do Qataris give us?” he asks. “Nothing. They treat us like we aren’t human, like we’re pieces of shit. ‘Kachara’ [‘garbage’], they shout at us. The attitude is that we barely exist.”

Moses, in several tales of everyday life patrolling his mall, offers a similar impression. For a degree of balance he says some families bring him food from its restaurants, and suggests better-travelled locals behave more kindly. But the discrimination he sees in plain sight breeds a different worry: he is obliged to live in an all-male environment and wonders what women working in household jobs in Qatar are subjected to behind closed doors.

The overriding sense is that, while Qatar has bragged wildly about the success of its tournament, it has staged a show intended for anyone but the low-paid migrants who have risked their wellbeing to keep it running smoothly. “The World Cup wasn’t for me,” Geoffrey says. “It was about the Qataris, not us. We’re the labourers. It has made history for them, they can always point to what happened. But they wanted to be famous, and we were used for that.”

Football will have little meaning for Isaac until he has money to enjoy it in even the simplest way, but he attempts a positive note. “It’s life,” he says. “You just have to keep working hard.” The bus will be waiting again in nine hours.

* Names have been changed to protect their identity.

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