World Cup in Qatar: plight of migrant workers casts shadow over World Cup

Nairobi, Kenya

Boniface Barasa worked for three years as a construction worker in Qatar, but the longtime football fan now says he was so traumatized by the experience that he was torn about watching matches during world Cup.

Barasa, 38, says he saw a colleague die after collapsing in the extreme heat, which can reach 120 degrees. He suspects that this person could have been dehydrated due to the limited number of water breaks offered to workers.

CNN could not independently verify its claim.

He added: “I saw the supervisor calling another Kenyan a lazy black monkey. Then when the Kenyan asked him, ‘Why are you calling me a black monkey?’ the supervisor slapped him,” Barasa, who worked at Lusail Stadium, told CNN.

His story echoes those of other foreign workers, mainly from South Asia and Africa, who have played an important role in the country’s preparation for the World Cup.

Authorities have acknowledged hundreds of deaths in construction and related industries in the 13 years since FIFA awarded the tournament to the Gulf nation.

Two migrant workers also died in unexplained circumstances during the tournament.

On December 10, 24-year-old Kenyan security guard John Njue Kibue fell from the eighth floor of Lusail Stadium and died in hospital, his family told CNN.

Another died at a resort used by Saudi Arabia during the group stages of the tournament.

Organizers say they are investigating Kibue’s death, which has renewed scrutiny of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers as the World Cup draws to a close.

While the investigation is ongoing, complaints from workers currently in Qatar continue, according to a Kenya-based migrant rights activist, who says he receives thousands of messages from workers based in the Gulf region.

Geoffrey Owino, 40, says he worked as a security guard in the country from 2018 until last June when Qatari authorities expelled him.

He campaigned for migrant rights when he was there and continues to do so today.

Most of the complaints he receives range from payroll deductions to physical assaults, Owino told CNN.

Owino says he experienced first-hand the abuse some migrant workers face while working in Qatar.

During his first week in 2018, he says he was pressured to sign an employment contract he had not read. He initially refused but eventually signed after considering the $1,500 recruitment fee he had paid an agent in Kenya to get a job that promised $400 a month.

When he arrived there, he says he was only paid $200 a month and lived with seven other people in one room.

Foreign workers working at the construction site of al-Wakrah football stadium, one of the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, walk back to their accommodation.

Owino says that as a safety inspector, he often spoke of construction workers at Lusail Stadium working in extreme temperatures. But it was ignored, he says, as officials rushed to complete construction.

He said authorities detained him three times without giving him a reason and sent him to a deportation camp because he complained about the mistreatment of his colleagues.

He says he challenged the deportation twice and was released. But after authorities detained him a third time, he says he stopped fighting and was expelled from the country.

CNN reached out to the Qatari government for comment on migrant working conditions in the country, as well as Owino’s claims, but a Qatari government official previously told CNN that any claims that workers were ” imprisoned or deported without explanation” was false.

Back in Nairobi, Owino’s fight for fair treatment of migrants in Qatar has earned him the nickname “Mr. Labour” and Owino says he continues to help overseas workers and advocates for compensation bodies such as FIFA for them.

Owino is also working with Equidem, a human and labor rights organization, to document the experiences of workers who have returned to Kenya. He spends time in the Gachie district, on the outskirts of the capital Nairobi.

Once notorious for crime and gang violence, the low-income neighborhood has since become a prime target for recruiters promising lucrative opportunities in the Middle East.

The promises are alluring given Kenya’s high unemployment rate, which at 5.7% is the highest in East Africa.

Equidem is investigating allegations of mistreatment by current and former migrant workers in the Gulf, but in a report last month focused on Qatar, Equidem revealed widespread violations, including forced labor, unpaid wages, discrimination based on nationality and systemic abuses in interviews with 60 migrant workers. employed in World Cup stadiums.

In a written response to the report, World Cup organizers said it was “riddled with inaccuracies” and highlighted the measures put in place to protect workers and the progress the country has made with reforms, noting that “their commitment to ensuring the health, safety and dignity of workers” has been “unwavering” since construction began.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy went on to say that “while there is always room for improvement…. the report presents a completely lopsided picture of meaningful progress versus the inevitable challenges that remain,” adding, “We have always been transparent about our challenges and progress throughout our journey and maintain an open dialogue with all of our stakeholders.

Qatar’s World Cup chief Hassan Al-Thawadi said in a British television interview last month that between 400 and 500 migrant workers had died in their efforts to prepare the Gulf nation for the World Cup. world, which is a figure well above what the authorities had previously acknowledged. . But he said only a handful of deaths were directly linked to stadium construction.

Qatar has taken reform steps in response to criticism and signed an agreement with the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2017.

For example, he dismantled the state sponsorship system, known as kafala, and gave workers the freedom to change jobs before the end of a contract without the consent of their employer.

It also became the first country in the region to introduce a non-discriminatory minimum wage and a policy requiring employers to pay workers on time. And it adopted a new health and safety and inspection policy.

Qatar was commended for the steps it has taken to better protect migrant workers. However, last month the ILO acknowledged that more needed to be done as reports of vulnerable workers facing retaliation from employers and delayed wages persisted.

At the start of the World Cup, some black migrant workers took on highly visible roles in a country where they are often invisible – part of the workforce but not part of society.

Kenyan Abubaker Abbas – aka ‘Metro man’ – has become a social media sensation for showing fans directions to the metro using a foam finger and a megaphone.

Tournament organizers have raised the profile of the 23-year-old Kenyan in an apparent bid to counter criticism over Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers.

He even took to the pitch as a surprise guest ahead of the highly anticipated England v USA match, leading the packed stadium to chants of “Metro!”

Elsewhere in Doha, another Kenyan, Dennis Kamau, has also enjoyed internet fame as an enthusiastic traffic controller, dancing while directing cars and pedestrians during games.

However, the show belies the grim reality for those working behind the scenes, says Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan migrant rights advocate and former security guard in Qatar who tried to expose the working and living conditions endured by migrants .

He describes conditions in the metro station Abbas was directing fans to as appalling for migrant workers.

Bidali claims Qatari authorities placed him in solitary confinement in 2021 after campaigning for better conditions for migrant workers on social media.

The Qatari government accused him of allegedly taking money from ‘foreign agents’ for his work with international NGOs and accused him of spreading misinformation online

After organizations like Amnesty International campaigned for his release, he was eventually released. The traumatic ordeal prompted him to leave Qatar, he said.

Bidali says he is worried about the fate of workers in Qatar once the World Cup is over and the attention goes away. He fears that the rights of workers are limited without any accountability.

“As we speak, we still have people who are not being paid, people who still live in cramped conditions, we have people who still face physical, verbal, sexual abuse, discrimination, long working hours and horrible working conditions,” Bidali said.


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