Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: The Cup of Life but also of Lives Sacrificed
21 December 2022
The plight of migrant construction workers in Qatar has received international scrutiny amidst the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Now that the media carnival has moved on, there is a real worry that this big human security concern will once again be forgotten. Lest we all forget while revelling in the joy of Messi lifting the Cup, here is an account from a journalist who has spent much of the last decade in the region.
On 20 November, the first-ever winter FIFA World Cup kicked off in the tiny Arab Gulf state of Qatar. Fans of football rejoiced at the sight of their favourite stars competing on the biggest platform of the beautiful game. Eventually, Kylian Mbappe faced off against club teammate Lionel Messi in the final, with the latter’s Argentina narrowly coming out on top. Having been robbed of the chance of a semi-final showdown against arch-rivals Brazil, led by Neymar, the Albiceleste overcame a loss to Saudi Arabia in their first match to win their third FIFA World Cup.
While Mbappe, Messi, and Neymar – all of whom play for Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain – each comfortably net around USD 100 million a year, the wages paid to the tens of thousands of construction workers who built the stadiums and other infrastructure required for the tournament, toiling in some of the harshest conditions on the planet, are a miniscule fraction of what these athletes receive.
Often working for more than 12 hours a day under temperatures that can regularly cross 45 degrees Celsius during scorching summers that last anywhere between four and six months a year, workers are also often forced to quarter in labour camps, with four to six men sometimes sharing a single room. Toilets and other common facilities are usually shared among the inmates.
The living situations in some of these camps are abhorrent. Across the Middle East, some accommodations are little more than portacabins or shipping containers featuring a few bunk beds and an air conditioner bolted on to provide some relief from the sweltering heat and punishing humidity outside.
As someone who has spent more than 25 years living in the Arab Gulf, and having visited Qatar on many occasions, I can safely say there is a stratified, rigid class structure when working in the Middle East, where most blue-collar jobs are done by economic migrants from the South Asian countries as well as Africa and Southeast Asia.
Earlier this year, the former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville travelled to Qatar to cover the build-up to the World Cup, where he took a deep dive into the state of migrant workers in the country. The shock on his face seemed to increase in tandem with the work practices he uncovered.
“This has been a political story for the last 12 years…the scrutiny, and the eyeballs, on the Qatari state,” he said on his show, The Overlap, while at the World Cup draw in Qatar.
Over the last 11 years, the Qataris have spent USD 160 billion to build seven new World Cup stadiums, hundreds of miles worth of new roads, and a metro network, as part of efforts to transform its capital, Doha. The country has employed the biggest names in architecture to design its venues: the Lusail Stadium for example, built just north of the capital, is the work of Norman Foster.
Despite the hardship they face, however, the construction workers and other blue-collar employees selflessly take on the awful work conditions for one reason: to provide a better life for their families back home, many of whom are dependent on income earned overseas.
An electrician Neville spoke to at a housing camp for construction workers said through a translator that he shared his accommodations with three others. Although the worker admitted on camera that he was satisfied with the facilities provided to him, Neville did reveal his frustration of communicating through a translator, and with supervisors around.
Expressing his concern over the quality of accommodation, Neville said: “I mean…the wealth in this country, and that level of accommodation for people…the sacrifice they are making…you know, people giving up 10, 15 years of their lives to live like this to send money back to countries where they are far worse off than they are even here. It’s just inequality like you wouldn’t believe.
“It is staggering, really. It is not right. This is not a home.”
Whether it is a waiter at a posh restaurant, a petrol station attendant, a cashier at a supermarket, a car mechanic, or a manual labourer who hauls machinery that weighs more than he does, the people who fill these roles come to the Middle East do so either because there is no work available for them in their home countries, or the money they earn in the Arabian Gulf is more than they get back home.
A better perspective on this matter was provided by Aurelio Giraudo, General Manager of La Cigale, a hotel owned by French company Accor. “There is no local working here…100 percent (of our staff) is expatriate,” he said.
“The cost of people, the human resources, is much, much higher than here,” says Giraudo, when explaining why his company is able to target a profit of 35 to 40 percent to a chagrined Neville, who knows something about the hotel industry: he is the co-owner of Hotel Football, alongside his brother, Phil, and fellow ex-United players Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Nicky Butt.
“Every hotel has to follow the same grade of salary pay scale. We don’t want to be unbalanced, otherwise the people will run away…they will go to a different hotel,” adds Giraudo, when defending worker wages.
Many of those who work in the construction industry are semi-literate people at the mercy of agents, who claim exorbitant fees from them and fill their heads with false promises of salaries that they claim will help these workers’ families live far better lives. These unfortunate souls often take on huge loans to fund their travel overseas, where their passports are taken away, and they are at the whim of their employer, who may not always pay them their salaries on time, just because he knows he can get away with it.
The Guardian newspaper, in April 2021, put out an article claiming 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since it was awarded the rights to host the World Cup. Hassan Al Thawadi, the Secretary General of the country's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy that is tasked with organizing the tournament, says that is a gross exaggeration. He said only three construction workers died due to work-related accidents, and another 36 owing to non-work-related mishaps.
Given the way population statistics are collected in the Arab World, he is probably correct. However, that does not detract from the awful conditions under which these souls live their lives.
Ahead of the World Cup, the Qatari government invited the International Labour Organization to help address working conditions in the country.
“One of the issues is that too many death certificates put the cause of death as cardiac arrest, or death from natural causes,” reveals Max Tunon, the ILO Representative to Qatar. “One of our recommendations is that there is a need for better investigation of deaths, and better classification of deaths that may be work related, so that action can be taken against that employer, (and) workers and their families can get compensation.”
Tunon revealed that the three deaths only related to deaths on World Cup stadium construction sites. He said, however, that in 2020, there were 50 work-related deaths, 506 severe work-related injuries, and a further 37,000 mild and moderate work-related injuries.
Many of these worker injuries are indeed a consequence of their toil: their bodies, unable to cope with the sheer physical work they are required to do, just give up.
An area of immense concern is the attitude of the Arabs, who feel they are above such menial jobs. They are used to good life: fast cars, the latest gadgets, and a sprawling home replete with servants, who are almost always – you guessed it – from those parts of the world mentioned above.
I once asked an Arab why he was unwilling to work as a gardener, cook, or truck driver. His answer: “We will not do these jobs because we are Arab.” Basically, every other person was welcome to these jobs, but the Arabs themselves would not touch them.
Qatar has taken steps to shore up its labour laws: there is an online complaints mechanism, new labour courts, as well as a fund to pay workers that will pay employees if their bosses are insolvent.
Under new laws – which Neville claims are the first in the region – workers must be provided with food and accommodation by their employers, as well as a minimum wage of USD 275 a month…the first in the region, according to Mahmoud Qutub, Executive Director for Road to 2022, another World Cup organizing body, who revealed to Gary Neville that 85 per cent of workers’ earnings go to their families back home.
“It feels very uncomfortable when you say that, because when I come to buy a bowl of pasta with a beer, or a soft drink, or a coffee, that’s a week’s wages,” said Neville.
Qutub, however, countered that the minimum wage was put into effect after extensive surveys were done in this context. “By and large, they were very receptive to the minimum wage…there is no doubt. A lot of the workers are here to make as much money as possible,” he said. “They do a lot of savings, there is no doubt about it.”
Qutub’s response to helping hospitality workers find a better salary? To ask workers who do plenty of physical and often menial labour to work overtime, so they can earn one and a quarter times their hourly wage, and one and half times over the weekend. There’s always money, he says, to make from tips as well.
Stephan van Dyk, who oversees workers’ welfare at the work camp Neville visited, added that construction workers get free laundry and Wi-Fi, as well as meals at the camp canteen.
The kicker…free transportation into town on Fridays. Yay! What they can (or wish to) buy after sending home the lion’s share of their income, is surely debatable.
ILO Representative Max Tunon added: “By far, the biggest complaints relate to non-payment of wages and end-of-service benefits.
“Then, when workers could change jobs freely, there were complaints that their employers were retaliating against them, saying they couldn’t change. Now, those complaints have been reduced. There was a decline there, because the government has been more effective in handling the transfer of workers.”
Neville, in closing, summed up a hope many have, concerning workers’ rights in the Middle East.
“The disparity in salaries between the Qatari nationals, the international workforce from Europe and America, versus the labour workforce from North Africa and Southeast Asia, is one the largest gaps that you’ll ever see,” he said.
“There is no need for it really, because this is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. What the workers need, more than anything, is for the spotlight to remain on this issue beyond the World Cup.”
Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.
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