Pramod Acharya has been researching the exploitation of guest workers in Qatar for years. In an interview with WELT, the researcher and journalist talks about the fate of workers who went on strike because of wage theft and were deported to Nepal, reports on workers who died on construction sites and the suffering at home.
WELT: For your last report on the situation of migrant workers in Qatar, you interviewed several Nepalese workers. One told you: “They treat us like garbage. Nobody wants the international audience to see us.” Is the 2022 World Cup a World Cup only for the rich?
Pramod Acharya: Most workers cannot afford to go to a game, even if their company allows them to. All the workers I know are big football fans. Qatar and FIFA should honor the workers who have contributed so much to World Cup projects. They built the entire World Cup infrastructure with their sweat and blood. Instead, they are sent away.
WELT: One hears again and again from Qatar that the construction workers are to be sent back to their countries of origin during the World Cup. Why is Qatar deporting its construction workers just before the World Cup?
Acharya: The Qatari building authority, Ashghal, said last year that its contractors should stop work during the World Cup. Among other things, they are asked to drastically reduce the number of “dispensable foreign workers” for the period from September 21, 2022 to January 18, 2023. I can confirm the authenticity of this document, it is also available online.
WELT: And what happened then?
Acharya: The companies did not renew many contracts and gradually began to send their workers home. They said government funds were being cut so they could no longer feed the workers. And many workers believed them – although the big construction companies actually have enough money to be able to provide for their workers during the World Cup. Tens of thousands of migrant workers have already returned to Nepal, and many more will follow. Your future is uncertain.
WELT: In your report for the NGO “Migrant Rights” you mention various forms of abuse that workers in Qatar are subjected to – confiscated passports, terminated contracts, wage theft. How can that be after all the promises of reform?
Acharya: Even today, many employers are still taking away their workers’ passports – despite reforms that have made confiscating passports illegal. And the workers? You are scared. Very many give up their passports because they fear that their employers will otherwise harm them. But there are also employers who deliberately mislead the workers. They invent reasons why it would be better for the workers to hand in their passports.
WELT: For example?
Acharya: Workers at a gas works were told their passports were not safe with them. After all, accidents can happen – gas explosions, fires. It is therefore better for the employer to “watch out” for their passports. There are similar cases in the construction industry.
WELT: A workers’ strike recently drew international attention: workers at the Al Bandary International Group went on strike over wage theft, many of whom were arrested and deported. You spoke to some of the deported workers who had to return to Nepal. What did they tell you?
Acharya: They said they haven’t been paid for several months. First they ran out of money, then food. But the company fired them without any compensation. They appealed to the Labor Court. They expected the state to pay the outstanding wages. But nothing happened. After protesting outside the Al Bandary International Group offices, many were arrested and later deported.
WELT: How are you now?
Acharya: They only got back a fraction of their wages, they say. And they are again looking for jobs abroad, in Malaysia for example or again in Qatar. They cannot feed their families otherwise. Especially in the south of Nepal, where most of the workers come from, a lot of people are unemployed.
WELT: Nepalese migrant workers send billions of dollars home every year. They thus make a significant contribution to their country’s gross domestic product. What is Nepal doing to protect their rights abroad?
Acharya: The fact is: Nepal is very dependent on the money that workers send home from Qatar. Nepalese government officials know that migrant workers are the backbone of the Nepalese economy. You know the grievances. But they don’t do much to improve the situation.
WELT: How so?
Acharya: They are afraid of launching concrete reform ideas. They say: If we put pressure on Qatar, Qatar will stop recruiting workers from Nepal. So they keep sending the workers to Qatar as if everything is fine. Many workers complain that the Nepalese government does not care about them.
WELT: In April you met families in southern Nepal who had lost loved ones on construction sites in Qatar. What does it mean for a family to lose their breadwinner?
Acharya: When someone dies, it’s a severe psychological blow to their family. The world collapses for them. Relatives feel powerless when their sole breadwinner is dead. Many just want their loved one’s body back so they can bury them in Nepal. That’s all.
WELT: Many of these families have never received any compensation. How high are the bureaucratic hurdles?
Acharya: Extremely high. It is very rare for Nepalese families to be compensated for a loved one who died in Qatar. To do this, they must first take legal action. You need to contact the Nepalese embassy in Qatar and the embassy will hire a lawyer. The case then has to go to court. This is an unimaginable effort for the families of most workers. Because they don’t know the legal processes and they are usually very poor.
WELT: For your “Guardian” report, you spoke to a family who had been trying to get compensation for years. It took six years before she was compensated for her son who died in Qatar. How did she achieve that?
Acharya: There always has to be someone who stays on top of things. And for that, it takes a relative or a friend who is in Qatar and is constantly trying to get compensation. This was also the case with the family I had visited. The brother-in-law of the deceased was working in Qatar at the time and kept going to the Nepalese embassy. He put constant pressure on her to pursue the case. Until eventually he was successful.
WELT: How does Qatar deal with workers’ deaths?
Acharya: Many Qatari companies do not pay compensation if, for example, a worker dies in his sleep. They describe such cases as “natural deaths.” The death certificate then mentions heart failure, for example. But how is it that an otherwise healthy young worker dies in his quarters? Nobody asks this question. It is very difficult to fight such cases in court in Qatar. It is then usually said that the worker’s death had nothing to do with his work. This is unfair, both for the deceased workers and for their families.