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

The Athletic has live coverage of the Japan vs Costa Rica World Cup match.

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

Welcome to the ‘Industrial Fan Zone’, located in Asian Town, which is essentially Qatar’s expat mall. Qatar has a population of approximately 2.9 million people, the majority of whom are low-wage migrant workers or foreigners. Qatari nationals number only 380,000. Asian Town is a shopping and entertainment complex near “Labor City,” which opened in 2015 and is home to nearly 70,000 migrant workers who helped with the state’s World Cup-critical construction projects.

This area of ​​Doha is home to hundreds of thousands of workers. 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 holding match tickets.

Many of the workers talked to me The Athlete said they could not afford to buy tickets for matches in Qatar, despite the significant number of empty seats visible at the matches. There were a small number of tickets available for Qatari residents costing just 40 Qatari riyals (US$11) on the ballot, but these had proved elusive for many workers. The highest tiers, with tickets rising to 800 riyals, were out of reach for the majority.

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

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Strip away the glossy sheen, however, and a more troubling picture emerges. A group of Kenyan workers tell how they left their country behind with the promise of greater opportunities in Qatar. They ask not to be named so as not to jeopardize their employment in the country. One shows me his contract in a document on his mobile phone. “We get 1000 Qatari riyals ($275, £227) a month, plus a maintenance allowance of 300 riyals ($82) a month.” The meal allowance is effectively removed as soon as it comes in as workers eat at facilities close to where they sleep.

Dormitories (including their labor supply) accommodate four men in each room – they sleep in bunk beds – but a Ugandan worker said there are other dormitories that accommodate up to 12 men in the same room. Other four-man rooms, as shown in the photographs, have a low mattress in each corner, with each worker having a tall cupboard.

The salary for these Kenyans, if spread over 12 months, comes to about £2,725 or $3,295 per year. Said a Kenyan worker The Athlete he had paid a Kenyan recruitment agency 100,000 Kenyan shillings ($818 or £676) to secure his position in Qatar, but the agency had told him he would earn double the amount he now receives per month. He is here to work on security during the World Cup for three months, before committing to then work for 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. “A lot of us get here with immediate debt because we borrowed money to get the opportunity. I am completely powerless in this situation. If I complain, I’m afraid I’ll lose 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 to my brothers in Kenya, but it leaves me with almost nothing to live on.”

He, like several others The Athlete he talks, asks about life in England and laments how difficult it is to secure a visa to gain access to a country he paints 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 get a residence permit, if they need a sponsor and joke about who they might have to marry.

This part of Doha, about a 25-minute drive outside the center, is a very different demographic to the Doha that traveling supporters were 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 mugs walking around. Also, there are hardly any women in sight because the workers are men and this zone is almost entirely made up of migrant workers. Not everyone who participates gets paid. Some Indian IT technicians living in Qatar say they have attended matches during this World Cup and say they enjoy spending time with the Indian diaspora in this area.

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The Qatari organizers of this World Cup would probably 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 survivors are talking, 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 had died building World Cup stadiums in Qatar — based on figures provided by Qatar. However, Nicholas McGeehan of human rights group FairSquare previously called the figure a “deliberate attempt to mislead”, as the eight stadiums represent only about one per cent of World Cup-related construction.

Human Rights Watch said the true number will never be known because “Qatari authorities have failed to investigate the causes of death of thousands of migrant workers, many of which have been 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 this World Cup was originally awarded.

As Saudi Arabia’s clash with Poland gets under way, the stadium gets busier. While the fan zones in the city center attract media attention, there are very few journalists present here and a very small number of FIFA officials. There are a few visiting officer liaisons, such as Patrick from Uganda, who is a qualified teacher but finds himself shepherding migrant workers in and out of the venue.

Inside the Fan Industrial Zone

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

In the fan zone, another worker from Uganda, who is in his 30s, talks about football. He says England is his team because he loves Manchester City. We agree that Phil Foden should have started the race. He has a daughter, 8, to whom he sends money home every month. He has dreams and ambitions. He wants to study finance and accounting, but the need to earn money in the short term for his family has always taken priority. He has been living in Doha for three years. He still shares a room with three other men. His salary (also 1000 riyals) is a struggle. He explains that his accommodations don’t have a refrigerator and that the on-site supermarket is expensive, so even cost-cutting efforts are complicated. The meals offered, as part of his monthly food allowance, are, he laments, often very hot.

“I can do something spicy, but not every day,” he says. “Sometimes, with the set-up rooms, the entertainment, the food and the work, life is a little like what I imagine a prison to be.” Not everyone, it must be said, is desperate. A Kenyan 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 well beyond the World Cup. “I hope not,” he says, also lowering his voice. “There is no opportunity for advancement here. It didn’t seem to me that there are opportunities for advancement, because good jobs are a priority for Qatari nationals.”

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

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

(Image above: Adam Crafton)


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