“I always pray that I don’t get sick,” says David* in a text message. He is resting on a bunk bed in a labour camp outside Doha, Qatar. He arrived from East Africa a few months earlier to work as a security guard at a downtown hotel that will host football fans and visitors during the 2022 Fifa World Cup.
The promise of a better future – a fresh start and a good salary to support his siblings and sick mother – lured him to Doha. But all he found was a disconcerting world of hard labour and oppression. He had his passport confiscated and doesn’t have health cover, yet he works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The work is brutal and exhausting and it isn’t even summer yet, when temperatures in Qatar soar to 50°C.
David’s pay is a paltry 1 000 Qatari rials (about R4 200) a month, the minimum wage. The recruitment fee he paid to come to Qatar was $2 000 (about R30 500). Barely out of his teens, he is now stuck. He is on probation for six months and, indebted, can neither quit his job nor leave the country.
His story is emblematic of the lives of migrant workers who have helped shape Qatar’s football vision. Their own hopes are often dashed by deceptive recruitment practices, wage abuses and strenuous working conditions enabled by the kafala or sponsorship system. Yet Qatar and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the local organising committee for the World Cup, have trumpeted that labour reform is real.
“The hospital was my best time here,” chuckles Paul Powell, a security guard. He is standing in slippers and a tank top that reveals his massive biceps near the entrance to his living quarters, which are provided by his employer, security company Al Bateel Securicor, part of the Al Bateel Group.
It is near sunset and the area around the Al Attiyah Market, a huge bazaar of shops, merchants and hawkers, is bustling. Bangladeshi men play cards for cash on the street corner. Powell smiles. “It is a trick. They try to lure you in and make some money.”
Doha’s industrial zone, a grid of about 30km² that houses more than 250 000 migrant workers from the subcontinent, the Philippines, Africa and other regions, has been home to Powell for two years. It’s a 15-minute drive from the Aspire Zone, a multibillion-dollar sports complex with pristine training pitches, a World Cup stadium, garish five-star hotels and a mall with a Venetian-style gondola. Powell has stood guard at the iconic 2022 building.
He claims that most Al Bateel Securicor workers don’t have Hamad health cards, which employers are legally obligated to give to their employees so that they can use Qatar’s public health system. “I got pneumonia at a high level,” says Powell. “The doctors asked who my sponsor was. They shouted at Al Bateel.” Only then, he says, did the company decide to give him a medical card. “I was almost dying. I had worked a year without one.”
A friend of Powell’s has been working at Al Bateel Securicor for four years. “I don’t have a medical card,” he says. “They were going to provide one, but until now, no medical card. I work 14 to 15 hours a day. They don’t give us vacation. Even on Friday [a day of rest in Arab countries], you go to duty. There is duty every day, no off.”
Powell says: “If you don’t get ill, then you don’t get off.” His friend adds: “They came to our home country and they lied to us.”
Kenya is home for the two friends. Powell paid a recruitment agent $1 200 to come to Qatar, where he says he has encountered inhumane working hours and arbitrary deductions from his salary. His passport was taken on arrival and he has “never seen it again”.
Al Bateel, he says, dismissed him when he picked up an unopened bag of rice that had been thrown away outside a supermarket where he was standing guard. Low on money, Powell says it represented food on the table. He has had to hustle ever since, working at glass and metal factories.
Without a no-objection certificate from Al Bateel, it was difficult for Powell to find a new sponsor and proper employment. He filed a complaint online with the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs, but got a message saying his request had expired. He then went to the labour ministry seeking a solution for a new sponsor, to no avail.
Suing their employers is risky. Workers could lose their housing and income, and they risk deportation and becoming more indebted. They also often have little with which to substantiate and prove their claims as payslips and other documentation are mostly non-existent or withheld. “Courts have their own routines,” says Powell. “Al Bateel knows that you won’t go easily, and if you do win it takes centuries.”
Qatar’s migrant labour force is made up of more than two million people who fall at the bottom of the societal pyramid, with Western migrants in the middle and some Qatari family clans at the top. The latter control the policies and wealth of the nation and decide the fate of those less fortunate, who will not attend World Cup football matches at state-of-the-art venues or sleep in the luxury hotels they helped build.
A tough sell
On a frosty afternoon in Zürich in December 2010, then-Fifa president Sepp Blatter awarded Qatar the World Cup – to the bewilderment of bidding nations Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States as well as observers, fans and the media.
Qatar and Doha were transformed in 10 super-accelerated years at an estimated cost of $220 billion. But the decade-long build-up to the World Cup has been a public relations nightmare for the hosts, with accusations of corruption, the funding of terrorist groups, a haven for slavery, the perceived lack of football culture… Allegations of labour and human rights abuses in particular have persisted, tarnishing Qatar’s image.
English newspaper The Guardian, Norwegian magazine Josimar and Danish daily Ekstra Bladet have been among the media consistently reporting on abuses. As far back as 2013, an investigation by The Guardian found evidence of forced labour. The article’s headline, “Qatar’s World Cup Slaves”, left little to the imagination.
The World Cup organisers, who work with the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) and global union federation Building and Wood Workers’ International, have repeatedly stressed their commitment to workers’ welfare and “a legacy of lasting labour reforms”.
“The Supreme Committee’s labour standards are among the highest in Qatar,” Max Tunon, the head of the ILO project office for Qatar, has said.
But The Guardian reported in 2021 that 6 500 South Asian migrants had died in Qatar since 2010, with 37 deaths linked to the construction of World Cup stadiums. This ignited renewed media scrutiny and a wave of protest from football federations and players in Scandinavia and Western Europe. In a recent report, human rights group Amnesty International revealed the non-Qatari death toll between 2010 and 2019 to be 15 000, but focused attention on the extremely high rate of unexplained deaths, which ran at about 70%.
‘Employers love it’
At the heart of it all lies the kafala system that is prevalent in Gulf countries. In Arabic, kafala literally means “guardianship”. It ties a “foreign” worker to a sponsor, who yields “unchecked powers over migrant workers, allowing them to evade accountability for labour and human rights abuses, and leaves workers beholden to debt and in constant fear of retaliation”, according to Human Rights Watch.
Qatar partnered with the ILO five years ago to introduce nationwide labour reform, including an official end to the kafala system and confiscation of passports, and the introduction of a minimum wage. It set up labour dispute resolution committees and the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund. “Qatar is a very different place from 2017,” says Tunon.
But Nicholas McGeehan, one of the founding directors of human rights organisation FairSquare Research and Projects, disputes this. “Kafala has been eliminated in law, but kafala is a lot more than a law. It’s an entrenched social practice that dates back to the 1920s and 1930s. It has been the prime system that has enabled national employers to regulate a non-national workforce. Getting rid of it requires not just the legal abolition of it, but wholesale political will. Kafala remains extremely popular in the Gulf states. Employers love it.”
The proposed labour reforms were to compel World Cup contractors and companies such as Al Bateel Securicor to adhere to legal standards. Founded in 1989, Al Bateel Group diversified to include marine construction, catering services and telecommunication. Sheikh Abdullah bin Said bin Jassim Al Thani, a member of the ruling family, chairs the group, according to Dhow Net, a reference platform listing the “top companies and people of Arabia”.
Al Bateel Group has also provided security services since 2000 through Al Bateel Securicor. Today, the company employs hundreds of guards and lists ministries, banks, hotels and museums among its clients. Its website proclaims that the company “takes care to employ the best people, develop their competence, provide opportunities and inspire them to live our values” and that it “can always be trusted to do the right thing”.
Taking on the company
John Njenga is sweating profusely in his boxer shorts. A gatekeeper at a cement factory, he strips down to bear the scorching heat in his cabin. He works every day of the week, even if by law security guards are not allowed to work more than 60 hours a week, according to the ILO. “Not even the military stand for 12 hours a day,” says Njenga. “Everything is just work, work, work, work.”
He has had his passport confiscated and salary deducted while working for Al Bateel. He has also worked infinite hours, lived in shabby accommodation and had no health coverage. And he paid a recruitment agent $2 000 to work in Qatar. On arrival, his recruitment agent’s signature was at the bottom of a new labour contract. “I realised I had been doomed from the very beginning,” says Njenga.
He resigned after two months because his salary was just QAR500, with Al Bateel deducting the cost of his mandatory Covid quarantine. The company declined his resignation, demanded he pay the QAR2 000 for quarantine and said he had to find his own ticket home. “Of course I didn’t have the money, so they insisted, ‘Come back and work for us another three months.’ … It’s insane.”
He went to the labour ministry, where his complaint wasn’t processed, then to court. But Al Bateel wasn’t forthcoming when ordered to pay Njenga what he was owed and the judge kicked the company’s representative out of court. “I spoke to the judge and asked what am I supposed to do now?”
His colleague, John Mwirigi from Kenya, fell foul of deceptive recruitment practices when Al Bateel made him a cleaner at minimum wage instead of a security guard. “Let me persevere,” Mwirigi recalls thinking as his workload increased steadily. “It is only for two years. Get my salary and go back home.”
Mwirigi ended up having to “buy soap and detergent from my own pocket” and was dismissed abruptly after telling “the director there was no need to shout, but just to explain us”. The official reason? He hadn’t been working. But his contract said Al Bateel had to pay him for the remaining eight months. The ministry told Al Bateel to let him work those months or pay up. The company didn’t comply and he sued.
Al Bateel threatened to evict him from his accommodation and terminate his Qatar ID, which led to the police arresting him twice. The second time, the police didn’t believe he had a court case, which prevents workers from being deported. “I stayed there for 29 days.” He called the embassy and it took on the police. “The police said, ‘John, why didn’t you tell us you had a court case?’”
Mwirigi, representing himself, won his court case and was awarded almost QAR8 000. But Al Bateel called and asked him to bring the documents to the office. “If I went, they could have taken my papers,” says Mwirigi. He adds that Al Bateel told workers in his accommodation that “if you help him we will fine you”.
Intangible labour reform
Powell, Njenga and Mwirigi’s stories portray the persistent and widespread labour abuse at Al Bateel Securicor. They reveal its constant subterfuge, deceit and lies as well as the company’s reluctance to cooperate with judicial authorities.
Powell flew home just before Christmas. “I am left with nothing.” Njenga and Mwrigi fight on, their legal positions fraught with complication.
“The loopholes in the legal system are enormous,” says Njenga. “Labour reform is not tangible at all. The system is between the government and the employer. I don’t have a representative. It’s totalitarian. This is far from a First World nation. It is going to take another 20, 30 years for Qatar to catch up.”
In February, a Kenyan security guard of Al Bateel Securicor died from a heart attack, but Njenga tries to remain optimistic. He has enrolled in an online coding course to capitalise on the opportunities the World Cup will bring. But above all, he sees it as a stepping stone to better times. “I don’t want to stay here, but I can’t go back from where I came with a debt. I am very optimistic about my future.”
Al Bateel declined to comment telephonically on the allegations levelled against it. The company and the government’s media office had not responded to questions emailed in January at the time of publishing.
*Not his real name
This article was first published by New Frame.