Watching the World Cup with Qatar’s migrant workers and hearing about their lives

Athletic has live coverage of Japan v Costa Rica in the World Cup.

Inside a cricket stadium on the outskirts of Doha, hundreds of men gather together. It is an entertainment layout with food and beverage stands, 5-a-side football pitches and volleyball courts. A big screen broadcasts FIFA World Cup matches, while the first half means a performance by Indian dancers.

Welcome to the “Industrial Fan Zone”, located in the Asian city, which is essentially Qatar’s expat shopping center. Qatar has a population of about 2.9 million people, most of whom are low-wage migrant or foreign workers. Qatari nationals number only 380,000. Asian Town is a shopping and entertainment complex near Labor City, which opened in 2015 and houses close to 70,000 migrant workers who helped with construction projects critical to the country’s World Cup.

Hundreds of thousands of workers have taken shelter in this area of ​​Doha. However, despite their essential role in creating this World Cup, many of the fan zones populated by traveling fans in the city center are off limits to workers. This is because access requires a Hayya card, for which registration is dependent on possession of match tickets.

Many of the workers were spoken by Athletics said they could not afford to buy tickets for matches in Qatar, despite the significant number of empty seats seen at the games. There were a small number of tickets available to Qatari residents at a cost of just 40 Qatari riyals ($11 USD) per ballot, but these had proved elusive for many workers. The higher brackets, with tickets rising to 800 rials, were out of reach for most.

At first glance, Fane Industrial Zone is an exciting sight. Men from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Kenya and Uganda coexist harmoniously, enjoying ball games, chatting and taking refuge from the everyday. FIFA branding is present on the boards and a message, written in English, Arabic and Hindi, reads: “Thank you for your contribution to delivering the best FIFA World Cup ever.”

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Strip away the glossy sheen, however, and a more disturbing picture emerges. A group of Kenyan workers tell how they left their country behind with the promise of greater opportunities in Qatar. They ask that their names not be mentioned in order not to jeopardize their employment in the country. One shows me his contract on a document on his mobile phone. “We get 1,000 Qatari riyals ($275, £227) a month, as well as a food allowance of 300 riyals ($82) a month.” The meal allowance is essentially removed as soon as it comes in as workers eat at a facility close to where they sleep.

The dormitories (included with their job offer) accommodate four men in each room – sleeping in bunk beds – but one Ugandan worker said there are other dormitories that sleep up to 12 men in the same room. Other four-man rooms, as the photos show, have a low mattress in each corner, with each worker from a long closet.

The salary for these Kenyans, if spread over 12 months, comes to about £2,725 or $3,295 per year. A Kenyan worker said Athletics he had paid a Kenyan recruitment agency 100,000 Kenyan shillings ($818 or £676) to secure his place in Qatar, but the agency had told him he would earn double the figure he now receives per month. He is here to work on security during the World Cup for three months, before committing to another two years for the international security company that employs the workers in Qatar.

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“There’s nothing I can do about it,” he says, lowering his voice. “Many of us arrive here with immediate debt because we borrow money to have the opportunity. I am completely helpless in this situation. If I complain, I fear losing my job. But really, I need more money because I’m here to make a better life for my family. I try to send money home to my brothers and sisters in Kenya, but that leaves me with almost nothing to live on.”

He, like several others Athletics talks to him, asks about life in England and complains about how difficult it is to get a visa to enter a country he describes as an imaginary island of milk and honey. They ask to stay in touch to hear more information about England. They ask what they can do to win the mansion, if they need a sponsor, and joke about who they might need to marry.

This part of Doha, located about a 25-minute drive outside the center, is a very different demographic to the Doha that traveling supporters got used to during the first week of the World Cup downtown. There are very few Qataris in this neck of the woods and very few men in Qatari knives wandering around. Also, there are hardly any women in sight because the workers are male and this area is almost exclusively made up of migrant workers. Not all participants are low paid. Several IT technicians from India living in Qatar say they have been watching the matches during this World Cup and say they enjoy spending time with the Indian diaspora in the area.

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Qatar’s organizers of this World Cup will likely argue that an industrial fan zone is a nice gesture for the workers who have sacrificed so much to produce this tournament. And that means only those who survived, with the death toll a matter of dispute between rights groups and the Qatari state.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino told the European Parliament this year that only three migrant workers died building World Cup stadiums in Qatar – based on figures provided by Qatar. However, Nicholas McGeehan of human rights organization FairSquare previously called the figure a “deliberate attempt to mislead” as the eight stadiums account for only about one percent of World Cup-related construction.

Human Rights Watch has said that the exact number will never be known because “Qatari authorities have failed to investigate the causes of death of thousands of migrant workers, many attributed to ‘natural causes.’ Nepal’s labor ministry alone says 2,100 of its citizens have died in Qatar from all causes since 2010, the year the World Cup was first hosted.

As Saudi Arabia’s match against Poland kicks off, the country gets busier. While the fan zones in the city center attract media attention, there are very few journalists present and a very small number of FIFA employees. There are a few visiting liaison officers, such as Patrick from Uganda, who is a qualified teacher but finds himself shepherding migrant workers in and out of the country.


Inside the industrial fan area

The less generous interpretation of this event is that it demonstrates a form of segregation, where low-wage workers, almost entirely of South Asian or African origin, are kept away from Qatar’s main event elsewhere. It would be a mistake to characterize the mistreatment of migrant workers as an issue unique to Qatar. One Ugandan worker, for example, says he is in a WhatsApp group with compatriots spread across the Gulf region, in countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and that similar issues occur there. As we speak, a Ugandan friend of his writes, asking for advice on getting a job with a Qatar-based company. He writes back to say that he has heard here that this company has not always complied with the labor laws introduced by the State of Qatar in recent years, meaning that workers’ payments have sometimes been even lower than wages. monthly minimum of 1000 rials. He explains that for some, the desperation of life at home in their countries is such that they will take the reduced salary anyway.

In the fan zone, another worker from Uganda, who is 30 years old, talks about football. He says that England is his team because he loves Manchester City. We agree that Phil Foden should have started the game. He has a daughter, 8 years old, to whom he sends money home every month. He has dreams and aspirations. He wants to study finance and accounting, but the need to earn money in the short term for his family has always taken precedence. He has been living in Doha for three years. He still shares a room with three other men. His salary (also 1000 rials) is a struggle. He explains that his apartments do not have refrigerators and that the local supermarket is expensive, so even efforts to cut costs are complicated. The meals provided, as part of the monthly food allowance, are, he complains, often very hot.

“I can do something spicy, but not every day,” he says. “Sometimes, with the orderly rooms, the fun, the food, and the work, life feels a little like I imagine a prison.” Not everyone, it must be said, is desperate. A Kenyan man who recently arrived says he is grateful for the additional security training he has received since starting work in Qatar, which he believes will enhance his future opportunities.

I ask the Ugandan if he sees a future in Qatar beyond the World Cup. “I hope not,” he says, lowering his voice as well. “There is no possibility of progress here. I don’t think there is any room for advancement because good jobs are a priority for Qatari citizens.”

He also chuckles wryly that his romantic life isn’t up to snuff because he’s surrounded by male workers, and says he’s worried about offending Qatari women by approaching them. “And I don’t think foreign tourists are attracted to a poor man like me,” he says.

He smiles, before leaving the fan zone, back to the dorm, ready for another week of work.

(Top image: Adam Crafton)



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