Worker Abuse in Qatar

A soccer-mad Nepali American physician hopes that sharing his story will provide some perspective to those wondering about the controversy surrounding the world’s biggest sporting event

SAPAN News Football is a religion in my native country, Nepal. I love the game. I want Messi to win. This year, however, the joy I once found in this great game is haunted by the ghosts of an untold number of voiceless workers.

These deaths became personal to me after my uncle died of a ‘cardiac arrest’ while working as an unskilled labourer in Qatar.

While I know my personal boycott doesn’t mean much, I hope my reasoning and story will provide some perspective to those who are wondering why there is so much controversy around FIFA.

In 2022, was there really a need for the World Cup to rely on egregiously unsafe bonded labour? By placing profit over justice and decency, FIFA has undermined the positive values that give football its global appeal.

Growing up in remote western Nepal, my friends and I were obsessed with football. There’s no space for a football field in our village, perched atop stacks of terraced fields that tumble down steep hillsides but we played improvised barefoot games in vacant rice paddies after school, as we chased a deflated volleyball while modelling ourselves after our favourite international stars. My hero was the Brazilian legend, Ronaldo. I was twelve when the 2002 World Cup, which we watched on a tiny colour television, pretty much brought the country to a standstill.

As we grew up, the pressures of life in an impoverished nation began to set in. By a stroke of luck, my father, a high school teacher in the village, won a visa lottery to the United States. I moved there with my family when I was thirteen.

When I was in medical college in Texas, most of my childhood friends were looking for jobs as menial labourers abroad. Nepal’s economy had stagnated after a decade-long civil war and endemic corruption. With employment hard to find, the Persian Gulf countries tempted Nepali workers. They obtained jobs that required long hours in the heat, in exchange for a few hundred dollars a month, a meaningful amount to send home.

Others like my uncle “Mama” Pitamber Bhattarai took less well-paying work in neighbouring India as domestic help or agricultural hands.

I met Mama after years in 2010 while on a study trip to Delhi. He was working at a restaurant, and had travelled hours to reach me. We met at a sweet shop because he wanted me to try the famous Delhi sweets. We spent hours reminiscing about my late mother, his older sister, whom we both missed dearly. I was seven when an unknown illness claimed her life. The hope of preventing such tragedy from befalling others is what drove me to become a doctor.

For those hours with Mama in the sweet shop, I felt like I had finally got some parts of my mother back. I felt profoundly moved. As we parted, Mama, the sole provider for his wife, his mother, and three young children back home, told me was getting a better-paying job in Qatar. I congratulated him on the opportunity.

Two years later, to my shock, I learned that my mama had died of a ‘cardiac arrest’ while working in Qatar – the family doesn’t know where exactly he worked – and that his body was being repatriated for the final rites. I was shaken to the core. I felt I had lost my mother all over again. His death made no sense to me. He was young and healthy, full of life.

The death certificate from Qatar listed only ‘cardiac arrest’ as the cause of demise. Even as a medical student, I knew that cardiac arrest isn’t a cause of death, but rather the end itself. Despite all our efforts, we got no further answer.

In 2013, a powerful report in The Guardian revealed the inhumane working conditions faced by migrant workers in Qatar. I wondered if my uncle’s death was also due to working conditions there.

In the following months and years, I began to seek out stories from Nepali workers in Qatar. All shared similar tales of inhumane treatment. I read reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International detailing the atrocities faced by migrant workers, including the Kafala system that permitted employers to seize workers’ passports, effectively reducing them to bonded labourers.

I learned, too, that on average, the Gulf countries send half a dozen coffins a week to Nepal with the remains of somebody’s beloved family member. This didn’t just apply to Nepal — workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and African countries faced a similar fate.

Concerns about the rights and safety of workers’ safety, and local communities, arose around previous World Cups too, when FIFA stadiums were being built in Brazil, Beijing and South Africa.

As a practising physician now, I travel to Nepal frequently to conduct global health work in emergency care. On a recent flight from Kathmandu to Qatar, I sat next to a 27-year-old man from a remote village in eastern Nepal.

Nervous and excited, he shared how, through connections from relatives working in Qatar, he found an agent in Nepal who arranged a two-year contract for him at a company called Ipas. They would pay him 275 dollars a month plus an 82-dollar food stipend. He had already paid the agent nearly 1,500 dollars to secure the job — more than his four months’ salary. He would start as a paint scraper in this new role, with 8-hour-day shifts and a day off every week.

The airplane, one of four daily flights from Kathmandu to Qatar, was full of men like him. So many such men have died building  infrastructure for the Qatar World Cup that even accurate statistics are impossible to find. Some estimates say the number could exceed 6,500. Each of those dead workers leaves behind a bereft, already destitute family, now with fewer options for survival than before. 

Meanwhile, FIFA is estimated to earn nearly six billion dollars from the World Cup this year. The Qatar experience has affected my family personally, but the issue of FIFA ignoring human rights violations is not new. The football body must be held accountable.

When the world learned in 2010 that Qatar had won the FIFA hosting bid, many questioned how a country with only three stadiums would host the biggest global sporting event. It was the blood, sweat and very lives of migrant workers that made this event possible.

Contractors yanked desperate workers from poverty in Southasia and Africa and flew them in, took their passports, and put them to work. So what if a few died? There would always be others desperate to provide for their families. In fact, young men have sought employment in Qatar even after receiving their own relatives’ dead bodies, or seeing relatives return due to chronic illness caused by the heat and poor working conditions. 

Nepalis are quick to blame their own government and the economic instability that has long affected millions. The government must be held accountable for allowing numerous workers to be exploited by overseas worksites and for not adequately advocating for the rights of its citizens abroad.

But employers in Qatar and FIFA are also responsible. They must be held accountable, especially for the indignities and injustices suffered by the workers who built the infrastructure for the World Cup in Qatar.

The bottom line is that while FIFA thrives, the broken families of dead workers continue to suffer. That is unacceptable.

I chose to not watch the World Cup this year because cheering on games being played in buildings that so many of my people died constructing would feel like I’ve cheated them. And because memories of my uncle don’t allow me to.

An Assistant Professor at Brown University, Dr. Ramu Kharel is an emergency medicine specialist focusing on public health, tropical diseases, and improving emergency care in rural settings. He has worked extensively in disaster areas. The 2015 Nepal earthquake led him to form the grassroots nonprofit Health Advance Programs to Serve All,  HAPSA Nepal. He loves basketball and Urdu poetry and tries to raise awareness about public health issues including on social media – TikTok @namastedoctor; Instagram @namastedoc; Twitter @erdockharel.

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