Workers at Qatar’s World Cup stadiums toil in debt and squalor | Workers’ rights

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When the England team arrive at Al Bayt stadium for their match against the USA in just over two months, they will be met by a stunning 60,000-seat arena built to resemble a nomadic tent.

The stadium, arguably Qatar’s finest, will host matches from the opening game through to the semi-finals. If England win their group and reach that far, they will play four games at the ground.

Just as impressive is the pristine park surrounding the stadium. Manicured lawns are dotted with fountains, streams and a lake. Ducks play in the cool water. A running track winds its way around the stadium passing a number of immaculate training pitches with grass like a putting green.

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A tent-like stadium at dusk seen from across an ornamental pool
Qatar’s 60,000-seat Al Bayt stadium is meant to resemble a Bedouin tent. Photograph: Pete Pattisson/The Guardian

Yet the men who labour day after day in the relentless heat and humidity to maintain this remarkable green space – watering the grounds, cutting the grass and painstakingly pulling up 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 belonging to their employer, Al Sulaiteen Agricultural and Industrial Complex (SAIC). Inside, among rows of giant greenhouses, they return to their rooms in small rundown cabins.

Some house three or four workers in single beds, others five or six in bunks, but all those viewed by the Guardian were windowless, cramped and dirty. Towels draped between the upper and lower bunks provide what little privacy there is. Water bottles, cooking utensils and personal belongings are crammed under the beds. Clothes hang on lines strung across the walls. The camp is as squalid as any this journalist has seen in nine years of reporting from Qatar.

Fifa and the local World Cup organising body, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC), have repeatedly claimed that the tournament has been the catalyst to transform the living and working conditions of low-wage labourers, in Qatar and across the region, but the Guardian’s findings expose serious shortcomings in the reform process.

Workers employed on World Cup-related projects are supposed to enjoy superior treatment in line with stringent “workers’ welfare standards”, but in interviews this summer with workers employed by SAIC at three World Cup stadiums – Al Bayt, Al Janoub and Ahmad Bin Ali – the Guardian heard allegations of multiple breaches of these standards.

All the workers interviewed, who are 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 nearly £2,700, a huge sum in Bangladesh. “Some pay a little more, some a little less, but everyone pays.”

The local organising committee of the World Cup introduced a scheme in 2017 to encourage its contractors to repay their workers’ recruitment fees, but SAIC workers who spoke to the Guardian say they have received nothing.

Two rows of shabby portable cabins with few windows
Cabins at the camp housing workers employed at several World Cup stadiums in Qatar. Photograph: Pete Pattisson/The Guardian

Most of the interviewed workers are earning a basic wage of 1000 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 are struggling to repay their recruitment fees, and associated debts, and send money to their families on this salary.

“The salary is very low, it’s very difficult. I can earn this in India,” says one worker who, after deducting his costs in Qatar, is able to send about £160 to his wife and four children each month.

In the face of relentless criticism of its treatment of low-wage migrant workers, Qatar announced a new law in 2020 which promised to remove the abusive kafala system – under which workers were unable to change jobs – but the workers say SAIC refuses to release them.

“The company won’t give [permission to leave]. You can only change if you go home, cancel your visa and apply again,” says one worker.

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

A room cluttered with personal possessions. Cloths hanging from string offer the only privacy for the bunk beds
One of the rooms at a camp housing workers employed at World Cup stadiums in Qatar. Photograph: Pete Pattisson/The Guardian

The World Cup organising committee said: “We recognise that the SAIC workers may still face challenges from their employers.” It encouraged SAIC workers to use its grievance hotline to raise concerns.

During the hottest summer months, the workers get up before dawn and head out to the Al Bayt stadium – which cost £620m to build. By seven, the heat is unbearable, but Kabir* works on, watering the grass and trees.

He did not know he would be working at a World Cup site when he came to Qatar, but it does not seem to interest him. “I’m not excited about the World Cup,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t think we can even go inside the stadium.”

The only thing that really concerns him is his salary. His family depends on his meagre income, but most of his wages go towards buying back the jewellery he gave to a moneylender as collateral so he could afford the £1,170 fee for his job.

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

The SC said it had “stayed true to its commitment of utilising the World Cup to deliver lasting social changes for our workers, to improve their working and living conditions”.

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

“Individual cases of wrongdoing do not present a full and accurate picture of the changes that have taken place in Qatar, where thousands of companies have adjusted their work practices to comply with the new laws and regulations,” it added.

England’s Football Association said: “Any questions relating to the stadiums to be used during Qatar 2022 should be directed to tournament organisers Fifa.” It pointed to an earlier statement in which it said: “We believe that there is evidence of substantial progress being made by Qatar in relation to workers’ rights. However, we recognise there is still more to be done.”

Fifa said it was in contact with the SC regarding the allegations raised by SAIC employees. It added: “In addition to the extensive 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 labour reforms that apply to all companies and projects across the country and benefit all workers in Qatar.”

SAIC did not respond to requests for comment.

* Name has been changed to protect his identity

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