‘Legacy, what legacy?’ Fight goes on for migrant workers in Qatar 100 days after World Cup

The grass inside Lusail Stadium is lush, richly coloured, moist. One hundred days after the World Cup final, the pitch is still watered daily and cut once a week; a team of around 30 workers are on hand to maintain the site. Empty white seats glare from stands that once housed swaying, jubilant Argentina fans; an unseasonable wind whistles under the roof that once held in their songs. The nearby boulevard, where Lionel Messi and his victorious teammates paraded into the December night, is almost empty save for groups of south Asian workers, cloths covering their heads to protect them from the midday sun, filling in the gaps between paving slabs with fresh cement.

There is still work to be done here even though the circus has moved on. But many of those who remain are patently at risk of exploitation and abuse despite Qatar’s attempts to mask the cracks in its partially successful labour reforms. When Qatar announced those flagship measures in August 2020, a decade after it won the right to host the World Cup, Fifa called them “groundbreaking”. The Qataris claimed they were a “major step forward”. The UN said they marked a “new era”. Even Qatar’s strongest critics gave them a cautious welcome.

The dismantling of the much‑criticised kafala system – under which workers were unable to change jobs – and the introduction of a minimum wage raised hopes that, after years of criticism for the abusive conditions endured by much of its vast low-wage migrant workforce, Qatar had finally turned a corner.

World Cup signage and bollards pictured in March 2023.
World Cup signage and bollards pictured in March 2023. The circus has moved on. Photograph: Pete Pattisson/The Guardian

Since the reforms came into force the Qatari authorities say around 400,000 workers have been able to change jobs, and 280,000 workers saw their pay rise in line with the minimum wage. And yet, three months after hosting the “best World Cup ever”, interviews with scores of workers and experts suggest the promises of change remain largely unmet. Fifa’s claim that the World Cup would leave a lasting legacy of better workers’ rights in the country rings hollow to employees who say they continue to be forced to pay illegal recruitment fees, are underpaid or not paid at all, and struggle to change jobs or get access to justice. Their repeated message is that the reforms are “only on paper”.

“There are no human rights here. They just use you,” says Majid* from Ghana, bitterly. “While the world was watching, they thought twice about what they did, but now the World Cup is over, they do whatever they like.”

Illegal recruitment fees

At Al Bayt Stadium, which hosted three England matches, little has changed for the men tending the pristine park that surrounds the 60,000-seat arena.

Before the World Cup, the Guardian revealed they had all been forced to pay extortionate fees to agents in their own countries to secure their jobs. The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC) established a voluntary scheme under which companies with contracts on World Cup sites would partially repay these fees to their workers, but the Al Bayt gardeners say they have still received nothing.

Sitting in the shade of a tree, Prakash says he arrived last year after paying an agent the equivalent of £1,235 for the job. Unable to afford such a fee up front, he borrowed the money, but six months later he still has more than £600 to repay. That is partly because, like many of his colleagues, he is only being paid a basic wage of £1 an hour.

It is a story repeated, in different grim iterations, across Qatar’s gleaming venues. Stephen*, a security guard who still works daily at one of the World Cup stadiums, paid a fee of £1,080 to an agent in his native Kenya with the help of a loan. He arrived in Doha shortly before the World Cup on a two-year contract that he says falls under the SC’s aegis. From each pay packet, around £110 goes towards paying off the debt and he sends the same amount to his wife and young daughter back home. There is little left for sustenance after that and nor will there be more until October, when he estimates the loan will finally have been cleared.

Construction workers pictured in March 2023.
Construction workers pictured in March 2023. Photograph: Pete Pattisson/The Guardian

The voluntary repayment scheme is news to him; he has received no offer and, despite increasing pressure for Qatar to make such compensation mandatory, there is scant indication that this is imminent. He occupies his remote post on the site, waiting for a colleague to relieve him at the end of his shift, counting the days until he can start saving money. Of numerous stadium personnel spoken to by the Guardian only one, a Bangladeshi worker at Stadium 974 who said half his eye-watering £2,700 fee had been reimbursed, had benefited from the scheme.

The SC’s stance is that not all groups working at stadiums have done so under SC contracts. Nonetheless, all of the affected workers have been on duty at World Cup stadium sites.

The Qatari government told the Guardian: “It is illegal for companies in Qatar to charge recruitment fees. Workers should not arrive in Qatar with recruitment debt under any circumstances.” In 2022 it shut down 45 recruitment agencies for not complying with the law, although that is thought to be the tip of the iceberg where offenders are concerned.

Prakash and his colleagues at Al Bayt are aware that, under reforms to the kafala system, they should be free to look for a better job. But workers at the stadium claim it remains very difficult or impossible to do so. “You can do this after two years, but if the company comes to know you are trying, there will be problems,” says one.

The only thing that has changed is their accommodation. Following the Guardian’s report, the men were moved out of the squalid, overcrowded camp where they lived to a better facility. But with the World Cup over they say they are about to be downgraded to another camp at least an hour’s drive from the stadium.

Low-wage labourers on a project to upgrade the Corniche in Doha, pictured before the World Cup.
Low-wage labourers on a project to upgrade the Corniche in Doha, pictured before the World Cup. Photograph: Pete Pattisson/The Guardian

Qatar’s labour reforms belatedly emerged from a complaint, filed by trade unions at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2014, which accused Qatar of failing to do enough to tackle forced labour in the country. Desperate to avoid the negative publicity the inquiry would bring, the Qataris eventually agreed to a partnership with the ILO to reform its labour system in return for the complaint being dropped. Several leading trade unions, including the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which up until then had been a vociferous critic, also agreed to work with Qatar to support the reforms.

Over the following years, Fifa and the Qataris repeatedly used these partnerships as evidence of their commitment to change. But as evidence grows of patchy implementation of the reforms and the spotlight of the World Cup moves on, those partnerships appear to be unravelling.

Earlier this month a coalition of eight global federation unions published a stinging rebuke saying that since the World Cup, labour reforms have slowed down, employers are flouting the law and cooperation with some unions has come to an “abrupt halt”.

Ambet Yuson, the general secretary of the Building and Wood Workers’ International, one of the unions that published the statement, told the Guardian: “Legacy? What legacy? They made so many promises that they would deal with issues after the World Cup, but there has been nothing. Their promises are empty. As the tournament left town, so did the hopes of migrant workers.”

In a remarkable development even the ITUC, which under its former president Sharan Burrow had been a vocal supporter of the Qataris, issued a statement this month expressing concern that there “will be no positive and lasting legacy of the Fifa World Cup”.

Some of this anger has been directed at the ILO’s office in Doha, which has taken a consistently positive view of Qatar’s reforms. Among its controversial decisions the ILO office, which is almost entirely funded by the Qataris, endorsed a basic minimum wage that equates to just £1 an hour. This rate has remained unchanged for two years. Figures close to the process point out that the figure was set in the immediate aftermath of the three-year diplomatic crisis that saw Qatar blockaded by its closest geographical neighbour, a period that had a heavy impact on local businesses.

The Covid-19 pandemic is also cited frequently as a factor that reduced leverage; so is the supposed stability of contracted work in comparison to the more informal labour economies of south Asia in particular. But that job security proves all too often to be merely notional, and the amount is patently desultory in a country where, by regional measures, a comfortable standard of living comes at a cost.

There is also no guarantee an employee will see all of his salary. Moses*, who was interviewed by the Guardian in December and still works as a security guard in a mall, arrived in Doha after paying £1,300 to an agent on the understanding that his visa and flight were priced in. For the next six months sums of around £75 were taken from his salary and he was told his employer was recouping the costs of those services.

Moses can, at least, say his working time has largely kept to a consistent eight hours since the World Cup. Attention appears to have slackened elsewhere. While World Cup visitors strolled along the Corniche, feasted in the shopping malls or admired the crafts and beachside vibe at Doha’s impressive Katara cultural complex, eagle eyes were keen to make sure nothing was visibly amiss.

At Katara, police officers would drop by throughout the four weeks to ask security guards whether they were sticking to the legal working limit of eight hours. An employee at the site told the Guardian there has been no such concern shown since the tournament. Their hours have generally remained stable but, now that scrutiny has abated, that is far from the case universally: 12-hour shifts are understood to be commonplace among many working at malls and, as the Guardian has reported in detail, abuse of overtime hours means many workers receive the rawest of deals.

There remains disbelief among long-term observers at the dearth of implementation. Mustafa Qadri, the director of Equidem, which has been highly critical of Qatar’s record on workers’ rights, said: “Are there no boundaries on Qatar’s behaviour? Is the objective to remain in partnership or to achieve a certain level of compliance?”

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Work drying up

Weak enforcement of laws, a culture of impunity among some employers and a sense that the world is no longer watching are not the only reasons low-wage workers appear to be particularly vulnerable at this time. In the wake of the World Cup, the construction sector has “fallen off a cliff”, according to one source with over 10 years’ experience in the trade.

Construction firms that thrived during the decade-long building boom leading up to the World Cup are now facing a very different environment as contracts from the government – “the country’s only client” – have dried up. “Every major construction company in Qatar now is on the verge of collapse. While work was here and it was going really well, they all lived their best lives. They thought it would never end and then all of a sudden it did,” said the source.

One of the stadiums built for the World Cup, pictured in March 2023.
One of the stadiums built for the World Cup, pictured in March 2023. Photograph: Pete Pattisson/The Guardian

As a result, employers are delaying or failing to pay wages for months, not just for labourers but also for middle and upper management. Large numbers are being laid off and the courts are “overwhelmed” with cases of workers trying to secure their wages and end of service benefits, the source said.

That dire assessment is backed up by testimonies from workers such as Paul and his two friends, all food delivery drivers from Kenya. Sitting in a park in Doha, they laugh at their predicament, although there is nothing funny about it.

In the run-up to the World Cup, food delivery companies took on extra staff to meet what was expected to be a surge in demand, but that is not how things worked out. “Everyone was eyeing the World Cup fans. But there ended up being too many riders and so many roads were blocked, that it became harder to make money than ever,” says Paul.

Before Paul could deliver his first order, he was around £1,800 in debt. Not only did he have to pay for his job, but when he arrived the company told him he would have to pay for his training to get a bike licence and the phone to receive orders. The training took two months, during which time he earned nothing.

Eleven months later, and after putting in 10-hour days, up to 28 days a month, he has barely managed to save around £150. His payslips show that he is only earning around £270 a month, out of which he must pay for his food and accommodation. “Here you have no way out. You have to work. You are a captive,” says Paul.

In the wake of the World Cup, an investigation by human rights group FairSquare found that 160 riders working for food delivery company Talabat, but employed by labour supply companies, had gone unpaid, in some cases for up to eight months. Some of the drivers who filed complaints were subsequently deported, FairSquare found. Talabat told FairSquare it was “extremely surprised and astonished” at the allegations that they had not paid their workers and that they were looking into the alleged wrongdoings.

Nick McGeehan, a director at FairSquare, said the case “shows just how easy it is for employers to get around regulations on wage payment and proves yet again that Qatar’s kafala system is alive and well in practice”.

Responding on the wider topic of remunerating exploited workers the government said: “We have a strong track record of providing compensation when workers have been wronged and the mechanisms in place have already benefited hundreds of thousands of workers in Qatar and their families.” It added that over $350m (£285m) from Qatar’s workers’ support and insurance Fund has been paid to workers in compensation since it was established in 2018.

A man posing at a World Cup sign, pictured in March 2023.
A man posing at a World Cup sign, pictured in March 2023. Photograph: Pete Pattisson/The Guardian

Families without answers

Perhaps the most divisive and emotive issue in the years leading up to the World Cup has been the deaths of workers. In the majority of cases, these deaths are classified as due to “natural causes”, although investigations or autopsies are rarely carried out. Under Qatar law, companies are not required to pay compensation in these cases, even though human rights groups have argued that working conditions are likely to be contributory factors in many of these deaths. As a result countless families, including the majority of those who died while employed on World Cup stadium construction, have been left without compensation or even an explanation of their loved one’s death.

One of those left still waiting is Nirmala Pakrin from Nepal, whose husband, Rupchandra Rumba, died in his labour camp while working as a scaffolder on Education City Stadium. In the weeks leading up to the tournament, the local World Cup organising committee hinted that it may be able to arrange a payment for her from an independent source, but with the World Cup over, the offer appears to have been dropped.

From her traditional wood and mud home in central Nepal, Pakrin expressed exasperation and outrage. “What can I say now? I’m tired of talking about it. Before, I was hopeful [of getting compensation]. But I’m not now,” she says. The SC was approached for an update on Pakrin’s case, as well as for wider comment about Qatar’s legacy to workers, but no statement was forthcoming.

Asked whether it was satisfied with the implementation of Qatar’s reforms, Fifa said: “It is undeniable that significant progress has taken place in Qatar. It is equally clear that the enforcement of such transformative reforms takes time and that heightened efforts are needed to ensure the reforms benefit all workers in the country.”

High up in Al Bidda Tower, where the SC is gently winding down or reconfiguring many of its operations, there is intense frustration that focus on workers’ rights has drowned out some of Qatar’s undoubted successes in using football to empower youngsters at home and abroad. Back at ground level, a source with long-term experience of the country accepts its shortcomings but stresses they pale in comparison with the issues faced at some of the mind-boggling desert projects springing up next door in Saudi Arabia.

That is far from unlikely, and football’s ever-tightening relationship with the Saudis means a similar level of scrutiny may not be far away. But two wrongs do not make a right. Lusail Stadium may be enshrined as a monument to Messi but if the world’s gaze moves on from Qatar’s darker legacy then people such as Pakrin, whose lives have been changed for ever, will simply be forgotten. “The world enjoyed the World Cup, but nothing changed for me,” she says. “Now my hopes have gone.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

The Guardian