Deaths of Nepali migrants in Qatar: martyrdom in the name of football

23 March 2015: Figures obtained from Nepal’s labour ministry indicate that the death toll of Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar increased since the tiny Arab nation won the FIFA World Cup 2022 bid in 2010.

Only 26 migrant workers had lost their lives in 2008/09 but the figure rose dramatically to 114 in 2009/10 followed by 225 in 2010/11. The highest so far was 193 in 2013/14.

The situation in the Gulf nation is so out of control that by the time the estimated 200,000 spectators flock to various World Cup venues in 2022, at least 4000 migrant workers (mostly from Nepal, India and Bangladesh) will attain ‘martyrdom’ in the name of the sport of football.

FIFA World Cup 2022: A very controversial game.
FIFA World Cup 2022: A very controversial game.

Not all of these numbers are linked to the construction of the FIFA stadiums but an alarming percentage of them are. In 2014 alone, at least 109 Nepalis were confirmed dead while working on the World Cup sites. The work conditions are so dire that at least 11 Nepali migrants committed suicide in 2013/14, Nepal Government records show.

This murky background information in itself is not news because there have been many reports on the subhuman work environment in Qatar. The news now is the utter dismay with which Nepalis across the world are beginning to view the sheer hypocrisy of the world. Some of them are calling it ‘a double standard’ of the western world. Whatever meagre attention the issue is getting from the western media is disproportionate to the gravity of the situation, they argue. Some regret that the death of one or two westerners hijacks headlines for days on end but the death of hundreds of Third World workers is not so much a big deal in the eyes of the western media.

FIFA World Cup 2022
Migrant workers at a Qatari construction site, exposed to some of the toughest working conditions in the world!

Deepa Rai is one such disgruntled but fierce anti-slavery campaigner from Melbourne. She became the face of a global movement called ‘United Against Slavery of Migrant Workers in Qatar’ overnight when she got detained at Melbourne Cricket Ground during a recent ICC World Cup match between India and Bangladesh. Police briefly took her into custody for displaying her prized anti-slavery banner because the authorities believed the banner was making a ‘political’ statement which apparently was against the ICC rules. When asked whether the anti-slavery movement was a political or a humanitarian movement, she said, ‘Of course humanitarian.’

FIFA World Cup 2022
Deepa Rai: a reluctant forerunner of the global movement against modern-day slavery in Qatar.

Rai, who is at the forefront of community activities in Victoria, says she ‘would like this to be an issue with every football-playing nation but it is not’. She rues the fact that even thousands of deaths of third world citizens fail to become ‘a big issue’ whereas the deaths of few people from developed countries become an ‘international outcry’.

She is not entirely happy with her fellow Nepalis either. “I think haami Nepali citizens pani don’t give enough importance to this issue (I think we Nepali citizens also do not give enough importance to this issue),” she said in a Facebook conversation with the southasia.com.au.

Rai reminded everyone, from people within Nepal Government to ambassadors and consuls abroad, that they owe their jobs to the dying Nepali youths in Qatar.

Protest organised by 'United Against Slavery of Migrants in Qatar'. Photo courtesy: Solangture
Protest organised by ‘United Against Slavery of Migrants in Qatar’. Photo courtesy: Solangture

Rai has a valid question for the Australian national team, the Socceroos, as to why they should ‘go and play a “fair game” in a country like Qatar’ despite the fact that ‘we all know what is happening at the moment to build the stadiums.’(sic.)

Her warning to the Nepali authorities and its employees abroad falls in line with what Dr. Shamser S Thapa, a well-known Parramatta-based solicitor, told southasia.com.au. “Yes, such problems can only be solved through diplomacy. Diplomatic discussions between concerned States will be more fruitful than protests,” Thapa viewed.

He reminded that migrant workers faced exploitation everywhere in the world, not only in Qatar. “Migrants workers are being exploited all over the world. I do not see any difference even in Australia in relation to the condition of workers,” he said, adding “Based on my limited knowledge, I think this crisis has been developed by so called “Western countries” choosing to host the World Cup in their countries.”

Dr. Shamser S Thapa: the concerned states must resolve the imbroglio through dialogues.
Dr. Shamser S Thapa: the concerned states must resolve the crisis through dialogue.

Thapa warned leading a global movement against Qatar could adversely affect Nepali workers there instead of helping them. “Unless our country becomes self-sufficient, it will be no more than propaganda to support Western countries in the name of human rights. This is the war between “Idealist -v-realist”, I guess,” the well-regarded member of the Australian Nepali community pointed out.

Shesh Ghale, the president of the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA), a representative body of Nepali people living across the globe, also agreed with Deepa Rai when he said more could be done ‘about the labor issues, their safety at work and working conditions of foreign workers in Qatar.’

President of Non-Resident Nepalis Association, Shesh Ghale.
President of Non-Resident Nepali Association, Shesh Ghale.

In response to southasia.com.au’s question about the measures NRNA has taken to combat this rising death toll, Ghale said his organisation has formed Foreign Employment Taskforce and Foreign Employment Welfare Fund. “Now, our focus is going to be more on educating the workers and stakeholders on these issues as preventative measures,” Ghale said. He added that lobbying with the Qatari Government ‘for improving the working conditions’ of the migrant workers would be NRNA’s focus hereon. “We will be doing this wisely and responsibly as an organisation,” the CEO of Melbourne Institute of Technology (MIT) said.

In a 2014 interview with Swiss television station RTS, FIFA President Sepp Blatter had said, “Of course, it was a mistake. You know, one comes across a lot of mistakes in life”. But the term ‘mistake’ was not uttered in relation to the rising death toll of migrant workers in Qatar. It was said in relation to the Qatari temperature and the rumour of corruption in the bidding process.

The international media coverage of the term ‘mistake’ the following day did not relate once to the untimely deaths of hundreds of poor migrants from Nepal (and other countries) who had spent their families’ lifelong savings on their jobs in Qatar. In some cases, the victims would have sold their entire family properties to secure a Qatari job. Some, on the other hand, would be the only bread-winner in the family. These migrants are the only hopes of their impoverished families.

And these hopes are dying every day amid the construction fever of biblical proportion as Qatar flexes its financial muscle to build 12 football stadiums, hotels, new rail and subway networks, as well as a complete new city to house 200,000 residents at a cost expected to exceed US$100 billion, a 2013 ILO report states.

In the midst of this display of financial power by the emirate, a tragedy is unfolding right under the nose of the international community – murder of poor Nepali migrants by way of sub-standard working conditions.

International Trade Union Confederation issued a statement during the International Labour Conference in Geneva in June 2012 calling for decent work for migrant workers. The below excerpt from the statement sums up the story of Qatar’s murderous FIFA World Cup 2022 construction sites:

“Working and living conditions for migrant workers in Qatar are modern-day slavery. As it undertakes a massive construction job for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar is putting at risk the lives of thousands of workers. Without genuine legal protection and union rights, more workers will die building the World Cup stadiums than players will play in the World Cup itself.”

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