Beneath their hardhats, the workers laboring away at the construction sites in Qatar wear thin cotton balaclavas as protection against the morning chill and the midday sun. The preferred headgear has only a thin slit for the eyes, making it look as though the city were being erected by ghosts. But the men have been charged with transforming the Gulf state into a glitzy paradise, complete with hotels, office buildings, shopping malls and football stadiums. And the first thing the desert takes from them is their faces.
Ganesh was one of these phantoms. He has since returned to his family in Nepal's southeast. He could hardly wait to leave Qatar. Ganesh has promised himself to never again set foot in the desert.
On this spring evening, though, Ganesh's trip back home still lies before him. He is sprawled out exhausted on his bed on the outskirts of Doha after finishing his shift. The room is just 16 square meters (172 square feet) -- and provides shelter to 10 workers. With the fan broken and the window sealed shut with aluminum foil, the air is thick and stuffy. Outside, a diesel generator roars. It is only with great effort that Ganesh, a cheerful, somewhat shy 26-year-old with jet black hair hanging to his shoulders, is able to suppress his frustration and fatigue.
The building is a gray concrete block located in a part of Doha where the city gives way to housing projects, bus parking lots and factory warehouses. On the map, the area is simply labeled "industrial zone." But it is home to the thousands of faceless workers, the place where they eat and sleep. In Ganesh's building, 100 workers are housed on three floors, far away from the glittery hotels in the city center. They live on the edge of a dream that the sheikhs want to make reality.
Part of that dream is the 2022 World Cup, which the country has been chosen to host. Thus far, none of the new sporting facilities planned for the event has been completed, though construction has begun on one site south of Doha, the Al-Wakrah Stadium. But a World Cup requires more than just stadiums; hotels, roads, bridges, parks and an expanded subway system are necessary as well. Those are the projects that men like Ganesh are currently working on, even if organizers claim that the structures are not directly related to the football tournament to be held eight years from now. The World Cup committee wants to avoid the impression that the effort to bring football to the desert has already cost hundreds of lives.
Important Enough to Die For
In the years 2012 and 2013 alone, some 964 workers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh have died in Qatar, a total that has since been confirmed by the Qatari government. A significant number of the men died in the summer, the victims of heat or workplace accidents -- leading many to wonder how a football tournament can be so important that people must die for it.
Making matters even worse are new indications, made public last week by Britain's Sunday Times newspaper, of corruption surrounding the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Former Qatari football official Mohammed Bin Hammam allegedly bribed members of the FIFA executive committee. He is thought to have distributed a total of $5 million to various FIFA members from Africa to secure their vote in favor of Qatar back in 2010. Yet however the absurd decision to hold a football tournament in the desert came to pass, it is men like Ganesh who must now suffer the consequences.
In his room, with cockroaches skittering across the floor, some three dozen men have gathered, all of them barefoot. The workers are discussing why the rooms are still overcrowded, why the toilets are still filthy and why their meals are still not satisfactory. After all, Amnesty International publicized the miserable conditions back in November. But since then, the situation hasn't improved much. There are just three small washrooms in the building for 100 workers, one of the men says. Another complains that aid workers frequently come by to conduct interviews, but nothing changes as a result. A scaffolding worker from western Nepal says he has been working here since mid-November and still hadn't received his first paycheck. The men become louder until Dipak, an older supervisor, sends some of the workers outside. Ganesh stops talking; he doesn't like the fact that some of his colleagues raised their voices.
They are skittish. Everyone fears that he will be the next to succumb to the desert's curse. Around one half of the 1.4 million migrant workers in the country come from India and Pakistan, with 16 percent hailing from Nepal. The rest come from Iran, the Philippines, Egypt and Sri Lanka.
The men drag themselves in silent resignation to the construction sites, even when their bodies ache. "Sometimes I am so dizzy in the morning that I can't get up," Ganesh says quietly, as though he were admitting a weakness. For every day that he doesn't work, 5 percent of his monthly salary is withheld. He says that he came voluntarily, but his legal situation is hardly better than that of a slave.
Many construction companies in Qatar treat their workers as though they own them, a product primarily of the country's labor laws. Every foreigner who wants to work here must prove they have an in-country sponsor as foreseen by the so-called Kafala system. Without the sponsor's permission, workers may not change jobs or leave the country. Unions are also forbidden.
A 'Missed Opportunity'
In mid-May, the Qatari government announced a reform to the Kafala system to make it easier to obtain a departure visa and to increase penalties on companies that confiscate workers' passports. But human rights activists have criticized the reform as a sham. Amnesty International referred to it as a "missed opportunity."
This is despite the fact that Qatar is a rich country, with one of the biggest natural gas reserves in the world lying off the coast. With a GDP per capita among the highest anywhere, the country could easily pay higher wages. But the pre-World Cup construction boom has attracted many foreign companies to Qatar -- from France, Great Britain, China and Germany. And they are unwilling to share their profits with Indians and Nepalese. For six days of work per week, eight to 10 hours per day, Ganesh receives €300 per month.
His parents and sister live in a small village in the Morang District in southeastern Nepal. His father grows rice and vegetables for the family and his sister is unmarried. Ganesh's brother also works in Doha, as an aid to a camp supervisor. He earns €180 per month. The money that the two brothers wire back to Nepal with Western Union is the family's only income.
Ganesh heads to the construction site every morning with the bleak assurance of a man who knows that he has no other choice than to submit to the laws of the sheikhs. Even before he came, he wired two months' pay in advance to the agency that got him the job. He was indebted before he even boarded the airplane to Qatar. Trading in cheap labor is a lucrative business for recruiters. The cynical aspect is that workers are forced to pay for their own exploitation.
Still, there are plenty in Qatar who endure greater sufferings than Ganesh. They live in wooden barracks 30 minutes by car from Ganesh's room. The barracks are covered with corrugated metal sheets and are crammed between warehouses and junkyards on the very edge of Doha. The streets have no names and the shacks are reached by a dirt road. The air smells rotten. It is the home of those who the Qatari dream has chewed up and spit out.
Each shack contains three bunk beds and together, they provide shelter to 60 men from Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh and China; they work as masons, welders and drywallers. Until the end of last year, they were employed by Lee Trading & Contracting, a company specializing in interior work within office towers. Now, though, the company is being liquidated. The company president, from Singapore, is imprisoned in Qatar and his employees have been waiting to be paid since the spring of 2013. Hardly any of them have enough money for the flight home; they are stranded in Doha.
Forgetting How to Laugh
One of the men is named Ram Achal Kohar, but goes by Anil. Twenty-six years old, he grew up in a village near the Nepali city of Siddharthanagar, southwest of Kathmandu. Wearing Capris, a T-shirt and flip-flops, he looks from afar like a tourist who wandered into a slum by mistake. He arrived two years ago, full of humor and always ready for a joke. In Qatar, he has forgotten how to laugh.
In contrast to Ganesh, Anil has no job, and is bitter and desperate as a result. With a wife and two children back home in Nepal, he seems much older than Ganesh despite being the same age. On a Sunday early this year, he sits down on the edge of his bed to tell his story.
His company, Anil says, won the bid in 2012 to complete the interior of the Bidda Tower in Doha. When he first entered the building, it was little more than a shell. Now, though, the Qatari swimming association, its football association and the World Cup preparatory committee all have their offices in the gracefully twisting tower.
Anil worked as an electrician, installing ceiling lights and dimmer switches, complete with all the wiring. The client wanted everything to be white: tables, chairs, floors and walls. Anil is still proud of the work he did and continues to save photos of the building in his mobile phone. Vast, snow-white conference tables can be seen along with elegant fixtures and light-colored marble. Sheikh Jassim al Thani, a son of the former emir of Qatar, is thought to be using the space currently. Anil, by contrast, can't even afford a ticket home. And the power in his shack regularly goes out.
The outstanding wages owed to the workers add up to around €300,000. A representative from Lee Trading & Contracting sent a letter of reminder to the building owner last September, but thus far, the workers have yet to receive a satisfactory answer, much less money. Anil is owed some €2,200 in addition to the return ticket to Kathmandu. He believes that he wouldn't see any of the money if he were to leave Qatar. So he stays. Every now and then, donors pull up with a trunk full of bread, potatoes, meat and vegetables to help the men in the barracks survive.
Kafka in Qatar
The last time Anil was able to send money to his family back home was in October, but it wasn't much. His two sons, five and seven years old, live together with his wife Punam, his mother and his grandmother in a single house. "They have had to take out a loan," Anil says, adding that it is embarrassing for him that he can't feed his family, even if it isn't his fault. To earn a few riyals, he has recently been working as a day laborer. He does a bit of carpentry work or installs doors for private families -- for €18 to €20 per day.
Ganesh's workday begins at 3:30 a.m. After getting up, he quickly washes himself using a faucet next to the toilets and heads in a sleepy daze for the kitchen, located in the ground floor of a neighboring building. Two cooks stand in front of gigantic kettles and Ganesh fills up his tin jar with soup, rice, meat and bread. He takes the jar with him to the construction site. It has to tide him over until the evening.
The company he works for sees Ganesh and the other men on Street 33 in the industrial zone as little more than tools, not unlike a power shovel or bulldozer, that can be moved from one construction site to the next. Men who signed contracts as floor tilers find themselves digging foundations in the desert; carpenters are used as masons or have to lay carpet. Hardly anyone complains, out of fear of losing his job. Ganesh arrived in Doha as an electrician in February 2012. His boss placed him on a scaffolding team.
Ganesh has been working for two hours by the time Anil walks into a room on the sixth floor of Doha's courthouse, located just a few meters away from the Bidda Tower where Anil once worked. Together with some of his coworkers, he has initiated proceedings against Lee Trading & Contracting in the hopes that he might finally see the wages that are owed him. It was not an easy decision for him because he had to pay a fee of €120 to file the case with the Labor Court, almost half of his previous monthly pay. Now, Anil must appear at the courthouse every few weeks and each time he enters the building, he hopes that a verdict might finally be handed down. But mostly, he just hears the sentence: "Inshallah," (God willing) "you will soon receive your money." Anil hates hearing it. He wonders how painful it really would be for Sheikh Jassim to simply wire the money to the workers.
There are around 50 men in T-shirts and flip-flops in the courtroom and some of them have brought along documents in plastic bags. It is Anil's seventh time in the courthouse and he hopes that the court is finally prepared to take a decision. He is sitting on the left-hand side in the second row. Before him, at the podium, is the judge, who can't be much older than 35. A large man to the right collects the papers from the workers, mumbles something unintelligible, signs the papers and hands them back. None of the cases is discussed for more than a minute.
Asleep on the Bus
Doha's labor court would be the perfect setting for a modern version of Franz Kafka's "The Trial." Most of the plaintiffs can't even understand what is going on because they don't speak Arabic. Thinking of his wife Punam and his sons, Anil's voice begins to crack when he says that he can't leave empty handed yet again. A picture of the abdicated emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, stares down from the front of the courtroom. When Anil's name is called after an hour, he jumps up, only to return a minute later with a signature. He was told he should appear on the 14th floor on Wednesday. Maybe then, he was told, there will be a verdict, Inshallah.
On the same day, Ganesh is sent to work on a bridge project. It is being built not far from Lusail City and is one small part of Qatar's new infrastructure. In Lusail City, just north of Doha, a new planned settlement is taking shape on the seaside, with artificial canals, villas and luxury hotels. Ganesh hurries to the construction site and disappears among the masses of ghosts. Later, he falls asleep in the bus taking him back to his concrete home on the edge of the city at dusk.
The problem is not that Qatar has no labor laws. Rather, they simply aren't properly enforced by the authorities. Until recently, the Labor Ministry had only 150 inspectors available and they could only check up on a small number of the companies working in the emirate. The number has since been increased, but the number of construction sites is growing as well. In the next four years, Qatar intends to invest more than €151 billion in its infrastructure, which will make it all the more difficult to ensure that labor laws are complied with. Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, recently said for the first time that awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar was "a mistake."
The entire world is now watching the small Gulf country. And there has been a small improvement: Worker hostels are to be outfitted in the future with common areas complete with satellite television and free Internet and rooms will no longer be allowed to contain more than four beds. In addition, each worker is to get his own bank account in Qatar. But the new rules are only valid for those who are working on construction sites directly related to the World Cup. For the moment, that applies to only 200 workers. The vast majority of the other migrant workers in Qatar will still be forced to sleep in their stuffy, overcrowded rooms on the edge of the city. In comparison to Ganesh and Anil, the World Cup workers will live like kings.
In contrast to Ganesh, Anil has still not been able to leave the country because he still can't afford a return ticket. He has, however, managed to find a steady job as an electrician in Doha. But the wages owned to him by his previous employer still haven't been paid. And there still hasn't been a verdict. But maybe it will come soon. Inshallah.