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

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

At a cricket stadium on the outskirts of Doha, hundreds of people gather together. There is a funfair layout with food and drink stands, 5-a-side football pitches and volleyball courts. A large screen broadcasts the FIFA World Cup matches, while half-time means a performance by Indian dancers.

Welcome to the “Industrial Fan Zone”, located in Asian Town, which is essentially Qatar’s mall for migrants. Qatar has a population of about 2.9 million people, the majority of which is made up of low-paid migrant workers or foreigners. Qatari nationals number only 380,000. Asian Town is a shopping and entertainment complex close to “Labor City”, which opened in 2015 and accommodates close to 70,000 migrant workers who assisted the construction projects that were crucial to the state’s World Cup.

In the area of ​​Doha, hundreds of thousands of workers are housed. But despite their essential role in creating the World Cup, many of the fan zones populated by traveling fans in the center of the city are out of bounds for the workers. This is because access requires a Hayya card, for which registration depends on possession of match tickets.

Many of the workers who were spoken to The athletic said that they could not afford to buy tickets for matches in Qatar, despite the significant number of empty seats visible at games. There were a small number of tickets available for Qatar residents at a cost of just 40 Qatari riyals ($11 USD) in the ballot, but they proved elusive for many workers. The higher brackets, with tickets rising to 800 riyals, are out of reach for the majority.

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At first glance, the Industrial Fan Zone is an uplifting sight. People from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Kenya and Uganda co-exist harmoniously, enjoying ball games, chatting away and taking refuge from the daily grind. FIFA’s branding is present on signs and one message, written in English, Arabic and Hindi, reads: “Thank you for your contributions for delivering the best FIFA World Cup ever.”

Peel off the glossy sheen 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 risk their employment in the country. One shows me his contract on a document on his mobile phone. “We receive 1000 Qatari riyals ($275, £227) per month, as well as a food allowance of 300 riyals ($82) per month.” The food allowance is essentially removed as soon as it comes in as the workers eat in a facility close to where they sleep.

Dormitories (included with their job offer) house four people in each room – sleeping on bunk beds – but a Ugandan worker said there are other dormitories that sleep as many as 12 people in the same room. Another four men’s rooms, they show in pictures, have a low mattress in each corner, with each worker getting one high closet.

The salary for the Kenyans, if spread over 12 months, comes to around £2,725 or $3,295 annually. A Kenyan worker tells The athletic He paid a Kenyan recruitment agency 100,000 Kenyan shillings ($818 or £676) to secure his place in Qatar but the agency told him he would be earning twice the figure he currently receives per month. He is here to work on security during the World Cup for three months, before then committing to work for another two years for the international security company employing the workers in Qatar.

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

He, like several others The athletic Talks to, asks about life in England and considers how difficult it is to secure a visa to gain access to a country he paints as an excellent 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 residency, do they need a sponsor and joke about who they might need to marry.

Located about a 25-minute drive outside the center, this part of Doha is a very different demographic to the Doha that traveling supporters have become accustomed to during the first week of the World Cup in the city centre. There are very few Qataris in this neck of the woods and very few people in Qatari Tobes wandering around. There are also almost no women in sight because the workers are male and the zone is almost exclusively made up of migrant workers. Not everyone attending is low-paid. Some IT technicians from India living in Qatar say they have attended matches during the World Cup and say they like spending time with the Indian diaspora in the region.

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The Qatari organizers of the World Cup would probably argue that an industrial fan zone is a nice gesture for the workers who have sacrificed so much to produce the tournament. And this is to speak only those who survived, with the number of deaths a matter of contestation between rights groups and the state of Qatar.

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

Human Rights Watch said the correct 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 the World Cup was initially awarded.

When Saudi Arabia’s fixture against Poland begins, the place 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 employees. There are several visitor liaison officers, such as Patrick from Uganda, who is a qualified teacher but finds himself shepherding migrant workers in and out of the place.

Inside the Industrial Fan Zone

The least generous interpretation of this event is that it demonstrates a form of segregation, where low-paid 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 ill-treatment of migrant workers as an issue unique to Qatar. One Ugandan worker, for example, says that he is on a WhatsApp group with countrymen 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, one of his friends from Uganda writes in, asking for advice on taking a job at a company based in Qatar. He writes back to say that he heard that the company does not always comply with labor laws that the Qatar state has introduced in recent years, which means that the wages to workers were sometimes even lower than the minimum monthly wage of 1000 Real. He explains that for some, the desperation of life back in their own countries is such that they will take the reduced salary anyway.

In the fan zone, another Ugandan worker, who is 30 years old, chats about football. He says England is his team because he loves Manchester City. We agree that Phil Foden should have started the match. He has a daughter, 8 years old, whom he sends 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 always took precedence. He lived 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 lodgings have no refrigerators and that the on-site supermarket is expensive, so even attempts to cut costs are complicated. The foods that are paid for as part of his monthly food allowance are, he says, often very hot.

“I can do some spicy but not every day,” he says. “Sometimes, with the regimented rooms, entertainment, food and work, life feels a little like how I imagine a prison.” Not all, it should be said, are this desperate. A Kenyan man who arrived more recently says he is grateful for the additional security training he has received since starting work in Qatar, which he believes will improve his future opportunities.

I ask the Ugandan man if he sees a future in Qatar far beyond the World Cup. “I hope not,” he says, his voice also quiet. “There is no opportunity for progress here. It did not feel to me that there are opportunities for progress, because the good jobs are prioritized for the Qatari nationals.

He also laughs sadly that his romantic life is not much, because he is surrounded by male workers and he says that he is worried about offending Qatari women with them. “And I don’t think that the foreign tourists are attracted by a poor person like me,” he says.

He smiles before he walks away, out of the fan zone, back to the dorm, ready for another week of work.

(Top image: Adam Crafton)


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