Since 2017, a lawyer and researcher for the human rights NGO Amnesty International, May Romanos has led the investigation into the construction sites of the World Cup in Qatar, which saw one million migrant workers from Southeast Asia or Africa. He explains why Amnesty deems it necessary for FIFA to set up a compensation fund for these workers.
How did the Amnesty investigation go in Qatar?
It began in 2011. As low-skilled migrants, often from Nepal, Bangladesh, India or Africa, have provided nearly all the work at the World Cup venues, Amnesty saw an opportunity to shine a spotlight on condition of these migrant workers from the Gulf. Our goal was to put pressure on Qatar and Fifa, with the idea of changing the system, dominated by the use of “kafala” (“sponsorship” practice which submits the worker to his employer, ed).
How did the beginning of your investigation go?
I personally arrived in 2017 and worked on the issue of workers at the Mercury Mena company. It was a group of migrants assigned to the site of the Lusail stadium (which will host the opening match and the final of the World Cup, ed). They hadn’t been paid for six or seven months, the company had stopped the construction site and left them there, without food, without electricity, without water. They were not allowed to leave the country either, due to the kafala system. We followed some of them when they finally returned to Nepal, where their situation was very difficult, especially because they were in debt.
Did you have to pay to come to work in Qatar?
You were paying recruiting fees to an agency to buy the right to work. These costs could be anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. That’s a lot of money, as the monthly salary in Qatar is $300 at most. Many did not have this money and therefore had to borrow it at high rates. Also, at the time of the World Cup sites – this has in principle changed since then – you could not come to Qatar without having a sponsor, usually the employer, who was responsible for your entry into the territory, your stay and your permission. residence. You were totally dependent on him.
What working conditions did you find out?
When the workers arrived in Qatar, they found conditions were worse than promised, with longer working hours, lower wages. But they couldn’t negotiate, they couldn’t leave the country or change company without the permission of their employer… So of the person responsible for these abuses. The worst that could happen was simply not getting paid. However, if you don’t get paid, not only can you no longer send money to feed your family, but you have trouble repaying your hiring fees, or the loan you took out to pay them, with interest. It was a very important topic, endemic to Qatar, with late payments which can also be very damaging. The Qatari government has since intervened.
What have you observed about the financial condition?
Today in Qatar there is a minimum wage of $275 a month with theoretical supplements for room and board. But the construction workers were often offered collective accommodation, in a sort of labor camp, a building where they shared rooms, sometimes twelve, with bunk beds, and in precarious hygienic conditions.
Have you seen a significant number of suspicious deaths…
Many of these employees were doing heavy outdoor work in very severe weather conditions. In Qatar and in the Gulf in general, the temperature can rise to 40 degrees for at least six months of the year, with very high humidity. Even walking outdoors in these conditions is very difficult, so you can imagine what it’s like to do hard work. Working hours tended to lengthen, which increased exhaustion. This is where the main story we documented emerged: the deaths of large numbers of young, healthy men.
The British newspaper The Guardian estimated the figure at 6,700 dead. Do you confirm it?
It is impossible to know how many people suspiciously died, as death certificates often only mentioned “natural causes” or “cardiac arrest”, with no mention of the underlying cause of death. Their families therefore received no compensation either from the employer or from Qatar. Young, healthy people often died in their sleep, although they often had no medical history. Dying in these conditions therefore suggests that it was related to what in English is called “heat stress” (heatstroke or hyperthermia in French). We can shed light on these thousands of deaths only through a thorough investigation, which Amnesty calls for.
Has the situation changed today?
Reforms have been introduced but Amnesty has shown in a survey and report that they are not always fully in force. Problems persist, for example, in the hospitality sector or in the safety sector, where workers are sometimes subjected to the same injustices that we have documented for workers on World Cup construction sites. Personally, I was also able to ascertain that domestic workers have suffered a lot, with very difficult working and living conditions, because to all the problems already encountered by other categories of workers, one must add that of isolation and absolute dependence on the employer .
A compensation fund?
Amnesty is asking Fifa to set up a fund of at least 420 million euros to compensate workers who are victims of violations of their rights, deprived of salary, injured, as well as the families of the deceased. The sum represents around 6% of the World Cup’s revenue, which is between five and six billion euros. Fifa has agreed to discuss with Amnesty, without committing. Some national federations, notably the British and German federations, have endorsed the principle. The French Football Federation (FFF) did not express itself categorically, limiting itself to hinting at the hypothesis in a press release at the end of September. On November 2, Ali Ben Samikh Al-Marri, Qatar’s labor minister, categorically rejected this idea, denouncing “a communicative stunt”, according to him an example of latent racism towards a “small Arab and Muslim country”.