Ohen Nasser al-Khater, Qatar’s World Cup boss, was asked two weeks ago about the recent death of a migrant worker, his response was both shocking and eye-opening. “We are in the middle of a World Cup and we have a successful World Cup. And that’s something you want to talk about now? I mean death is a natural part of life,” he said. he declared, before presenting his condolences to the family of the deceased.
First, a sense of outrage and outrage that anyone would challenge Qatar’s World Cup narrative, and then callous indifference to the workers who made it possible.
In recent weeks, this outrage, stoked by the Qatari authorities, has been seen in numerous articles branding Western critics of Qatar’s human rights record as racists, hypocrites and orientalists.
Even more frightening, we saw Qatar’s talking points repeated by Eva Kaili – then vice-president of the European Parliament – who was indicted along with three others last week, in connection with allegations that Qatar used gifts and money to influence the decision. manufacturing. Kaili and Qatar deny any wrongdoing.
“The World Cup in Qatar is proof, in fact, of how sports diplomacy can accomplish a historic transformation of a country… [the International Labour Organization] said that Qatar is a frontrunner when it comes to labor rights,” Kaili said during a debate on the country’s human rights record the day after the World Cup kicked off. “Some here still call for discrimination against them, they intimidate them and they accuse anyone who talks to them or engages in corruption.”
And yet, it’s the second part of Khater’s answer that explains much of the criticism. The accidental dismissal of a worker’s death illustrates what I have seen time and time again in nearly a decade of reporting on the treatment of Qatar’s low-wage migrant workers – whom, for the most part, the authorities Qatari women just don’t seem to care.
The real scandal of this World Cup is not that the criticism of Qatar is racist, but that the men who built this tournament were subjected to a labor system based largely on racial discrimination.
This was clear to the former UN special rapporteur on racism, Tendayi Achiume, who published a damning report in 2020 highlighting “serious concerns of structural racial discrimination against non-citizens”. Achiume said that a “de facto caste system based on national origin” exists in Qatar, “under which European, North American, Australian and Arab nationalities systematically enjoy greater protection of human rights. men than South Asian and sub-Saharan African nationalities”.
This discrimination is rooted in “family housing only” zoning regulations that effectively ban most migrant workers from living in certain parts of the country and was on full display when low-wage workers were banned. access to certain parks, shopping centers and public spaces.
This can be seen in the different wages paid to different nationalities – Nepalese and Bangladeshis are often paid less than Indians or Filipinos for the same work, for example. A recent report by human rights group Equidem found that almost half of workers surveyed who worked at World Cup stadiums reported discrimination based on nationality.
And it’s just evident in the way low-wage workers are treated. Twelve years after Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup, tens of thousands of workers remain housed in appalling accommodation and are still forced to pay exorbitant recruitment fees for their work, often in exchange for a base salary which equates to just £1 a year. hour.
Wage theft seems rampant and no doubt worsened in the months leading up to the World Cup, when thousands of workers were sent home, many still in debt, as companies finished construction projects .
The Qatari government said it has taken far-reaching measures to create safe conditions for its migrant workers and regulations have been put in place to limit workers’ exposure to the scorching summer heat. But authorities have done little to investigate the deaths of thousands of migrant workers, and countless families have been left without answers or compensation from their loved ones’ employers. As Nirmala Pakrin, the widow of a worker who died while working in a World Cup stadium, told me recently: “They make millions… [so] why can’t they even give us a little compensation? »
Geoffrey Otieno, a Kenyan worker detained in Qatar for speaking out against workers’ rights, recently wrote how furious he was at attempts to dismiss criticism of the treatment of migrant workers as racist, saying: “As a black worker African who made the 2022 World Cup possible, nothing – including the abuse I suffered and the abuse I witnessed – has been more infuriating… In Qatar, migrant workers are a consumable commodity.
Qatar and its supporters say the country has introduced significant reforms, mainly the dismantling of abuses kafala system and the introduction of a minimum wage. But these only came into effect 10 years after Qatar won the right to host the World Cup. And on the ground, little seems to have changed. The stories I heard from workers in Qatar last month are almost the same as those I heard when I started reporting in 2013.
It would be too simplistic to say that exploitation in Qatar’s labor system is based solely on race. As everywhere, race, class and the pursuit of profit combine to marginalize the most vulnerable. But Qatar’s unique population – 95% of the workforce comes from abroad – its great wealth and the attention it sought in hosting the World Cup exposed and amplified these divisions.
The Qatari authorities are not solely responsible. The daily abuse suffered by many low-wage workers is inflicted primarily by other migrant workers, typically – according to many workers I’ve spoken to – Indian and Egyptian executives. As one worker told me: “The Qatari people are very good, but they left the country in the hands of people who don’t value human beings.
The blame also lies with powerful Qatari business owners who seem untouchable. “It’s a hierarchical system here where no one below would dare try to do something against someone higher than them,” a construction manager with years of experience in Qatar told me, explaining how influential Qataris can act with impunity.
And then there is Fifa, and dozens of foreign companies and individuals who seem to have turned a blind eye while pocketing huge profits and salaries. A UK government press release from 2018 claimed that UK companies were likely to secure deals worth £1.5bn in the run-up to the tournament. Fifa earned a record $7.5 billion in the four-year cycle leading up to this World Cup and has still failed to agree a fund to compensate workers who have suffered and the families of those who died.
Ultimately, the responsibility to protect migrant workers rests with governments, and by that standard, Qatari authorities have largely failed. To denounce this is not racist, it is anti-racist.