When Nirmala Pakhrin thinks about the soccer World Cup in Qatar, she becomes sad. Her husband Rupchandra Rumba was a scaffolder on the construction site of Education City Stadium, not far from the capital Doha, shimmering under the hot sun. He showed her again and again via video call. “He told me that people from all over the world would play in the stadium,” Nirmala told the German Press Agency in Nepal. “He had to climb high scaffolding poles, and he said that sometimes scared him.” Rupchandra Rumba died on June 23, 2019 – of a heart attack.
The Nepalese is included in the “Non-Work-Related Deaths” statistics published by the World Cup organizing committee. 37 names can be found on this list. The emirate has vehemently rejected criticism and reports of thousands of deaths on Qatar’s construction sites for years. The British “Guardian” had spoken in a well-noticed report of 6,500 deaths on all construction sites in Qatar in the past decade since the contract was awarded. The organizing committee criticizes the undifferentiated and shortened presentation of the deaths.
Nirmala says that shortly before his death, her husband appeared to be in good health. But then he died suddenly in the night in his bunk bed in a simple accommodation for construction workers. The room neighbors gave her the sad news on the phone. A “natural death” at the age of 27 is on the death certificate. Nirmala says her husband only lived to be 24. He cheated when issuing his identity papers and gave an older age so that he could go abroad earlier.
Like Rupchandra, thousands of Nepalese men and a few Nepalese women travel to the Middle East for work every month. Wages there are comparatively high – and promise a better life at home in a few years. Rupchandra was promised a monthly wage of 1,200 riyals (329 euros) plus overtime pay in Qatar, about three times what a Nepalese earns on average in his homeland in the Himalayas. In addition, it is easier for Nepalese and other people with little freedom to travel to work in Qatar. According to the human rights organization Amnesty International, around two million guest workers live in the World Cup host country.
Rupchandra wanted to earn enough money in Qatar to buy his family a piece of land and a house and pay off debts, Nirmala says. In their last conversation on the evening before his death, he told her that he wanted to return in two years and that she should take good care of her son.
Remittances from Qatar make up an important part of Nepal’s gross domestic product. The Nepalese often work in construction, as security guards or in hotels. Their hours are long, the work hard, and time and time again they are treated like second-class citizens. They often live in long-distance relationships for years, and their families are not allowed to take them with them as guest workers. Nirmala and Rupchandra also spent most of their marriage apart. “He first had to work in road construction and it was so hard that he wanted to come home,” says Nirmala. Her husband was placed by a staffing company that promised a lot but kept little of it. In the report on Rupchandra’s death, the World Cup organizing committee ruled that this company had only been commissioned by a subcontractor “for a short time” and without permission.
The so-called “kafala” system, which ties foreign workers to one employer and virtually deprives them of all rights, has been officially abolished. However, human rights organizations criticize the implementation of the reforms. Migrant workers from poor countries in Asia and Africa continue to have little incentive to resign, as they usually come to Qatar through employment agencies and often borrow to pay their agency fees. Rupchandra was finally allowed to switch to the World Cup construction site. In his eight months in Qatar, Nirmala says he still hasn’t earned enough money to pay off his debts for the employment agency.
The placement fee for Nepalese people is often many times higher than the 10,000 rupees (78 euros) allowed by their government, according to Indra Lal Gole Tamang of the aid organization Foreign Employees Rescue Nepal, which takes care of Nepalese workers abroad in need . Rupchandra had to pay his agent around 80,000 to 90,000 rupees (620 to 698 euros) and borrowed this money from a moneylender at high interest rates, says Nirmala. Her husband came home in a plain metal coffin.
Human rights organizations and most recently the German Football Association are now calling for the establishment of a compensation fund for the families of the World Cup workers who died. The world association Fifa and Qatar are taking in billions with the World Cup tournament from November 20th to December 18th. Amnesty demands under the motto »Soccer yes. Exploitation no« Payments of at least 440 million US dollars (approx. 446 million euros). Fifa is clearly responsible here, said DFB President Bernd Neuendorf.
With the death of her husband, Nirmala began the fight for compensation, which his employer initially refused to pay. ‘They told me that if he died on the job I would have been compensated. But now I don’t qualify because he died in his sleep,” she says. After all, after Rupchandra’s death, she received 1,500 riyals (around 414 euros). Later, after the World Cup organizing committee had intervened, another 7,000 riyals (1,914 euros) were added. “Please allow me to express my deepest condolences after the painful loss of your husband,” wrote World Cup organization chief Hassan al-Thawadi in a letter to the widow in March 2020, which the dpa has seen. “It fills me with deep regret to learn that someone has died in connection with my organization and this project.”
Finally, the Nepalese gave 700,000 rupees (5,588 euros) from a fund for workers abroad and 1.5 million rupees (11,745 euros) for life insurance. With this money she bought a piece of land, says Nirmala. She misses her husband very much – and so does her ten-year-old son. According to Buddhist tradition, he knew his father was dead and burned his body for cremation, Nirmala explains. But he doesn’t understand the connection between his father’s death and the World Cup. He would like to watch the World Cup games on YouTube, he particularly likes Cristiano Ronaldo, as he says. Nirmala hopes that one day he will have a less dangerous job than his dad – doctor for example. But studying medicine is expensive. She hopes for a better future. What would you like to say to World Cup fans? Nirmala is silent.
But Indra Lal Gole Tamang from the aid organization for Nepalese workers abroad sees an opportunity at the World Cup: »Workers don’t get their wages, remain stranded and are ignored when companies go bankrupt. I hope that the guests and politicians who will be visiting Qatar during the World Cup will put pressure on Qatar to put the country on the right track.«dpa/nd