Tommy Yang – As billions of soccer fans around the globe are enjoying the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar, a young Pakistani migrant worker shared with Sputnik how the tournament failed to change his fortune and how human rights are still an issue despite recent reforms.
Zarak Khan worked as a driver in Pakistan for 14 years before he arrived in Qatar in July, in the hope of making more money for his wife and children back home. To cover the expenses for his move to Qatar, he had to take out a loan of 800,000 Pakistani rupees (about $3,600), but he still did not have enough money to obtain the driver’s license required for the new job he was hoping to get.
“I came here with the hope of becoming a driver or a chauffeur. But to make this amazing [driver’s] license, it costs 200,000 Pakistani rupees. Where will I get this money from? I am a driver and I drive very well. But I don’t have the license to prove it,” Khan, 34, told Sputnik.
Instead of landing a higher paid job as a driver, Khan was forced to start working as an ordinary laborer at a construction site in Qatar.
When the FIFA World Cup opened on November 20 in Qatar, the exciting soccer tournament was supposed to generate massive amounts of new revenue for various businesses in the country as millions of fans poured in from all over the world.
However, while many businesses, especially those that serve the soccer fans, blossomed after the tournament opened, others were not as fortunate.
“When the World Cup started, all the work stopped because of it. Before that, I worked for two months and earned 2000 Qatari Rials (about $550). That’s all the money I have left,” Khan said.
In fact, the Pakistani worker said the construction site where he worked was forced to shut down three months before the World Cup started, and he has been out of a job for more than three months.
“I have tried to apply for so many jobs. I applied for jobs at the FIFA World Cup. I also tried to apply for cleaning jobs or jobs at hotels. But I didn’t get any offer. I’m in a very difficult time right now, as no one here can help me. I’m very worried. I’m crying day and night. Only Allah is with me,” Khan said.
As he only had the $550 left from his two months’ work, Khan barely could afford to eat in recent days. He is also afraid to go back to his home in Pakistan because he did not make enough money to pay back the $3,600 loan he took when he left.
SACRIFICES OF MIGRANT WORKERS
Similar to other neighboring oil-rich countries in the Middle East, Qatar relies on foreign migrant workers like Khan to fill the lower-end jobs in various industries such as construction, cleaning services and domestic services.
According to estimates from US sports finance consultancy Front Office Sports, Qatar spent over $200 billion on infrastructure projects in preparation for the FIFA World Cup this year, making it the most expensive tournament compared to the costs of previous tournaments.
The cost of the eight stadiums for the FIFA World Cup stood at an estimated $6.5 billion, while the country had to hire over 30,000 foreign workers for various projects.
Working conditions and basic rights of foreign migrant workers in Qatar have always been under heavy scrutiny from labor rights advocates, who called for improved protection of vulnerable workers and greater freedom of employment choices.
During a TV interview this week, Qatar World Cup chief Hassan Al-Thawadi admitted that about 400-500 migrant workers had died as a result of working on projects related to the tournament.
According to labor rights advocates, one of the main challenges for foreign migrant workers in Qatar is the notorious kafala system, which previously required workers to obtain permissions from their employers before being allowed to change jobs or leave the country.
Following reforms to the kafala system in 2020, migrant workers in Qatar now are allowed to change jobs at any time, after a notice period of up to two months, according to the International Labour Organization.
Another positive change to the kafala system is that migrant workers, including domestic works such as maids, no longer need an exit permit from their employer to leave the country.
However, Yasin Kakande, a veteran activist advocating migrant workers’ rights who used to work as a journalist in Qatar, argued that the issue with the new reforms to the kafala system lied in the enforcement of the new rules.
“The reforms in Qatar didn’t go so far. They introduced a law which said they [the employer] shouldn’t keep your passport. But it wasn’t really enforced. By the time I left the country, about 90% of the migrant workers still didn’t have their passports. I still have friends there who told me that they still didn’t have their passports,” Kakande, who is originally from Uganda, told Sputnik.
The activist illustrated the problem with the mentality behind the kafala system in Qatar.
“The issue is multifaceted. But the biggest problem is the system called kafala, which means guardianship or sponsorship. That system means that your employer owns you, like a property or a slave. Once you’re in Qatar, the person who brought you, your employer, is like your owner. This owner has absolute rights over you and you don’t have any rights back. The kafala system is very abusive in so many ways,” he said.
Kakande explained this system made domestic workers, who were usually female maids, much more vulnerable as they sometimes could experience sexual assaults from their male employers.
“There have been many cases where the women had been raped by the husbands of their employers. And if they report it to the police, it means they would lose their job and have to go back to their poor countries. Even if they file a report to the police, the police would bring them back to the same person who raped them. You can imagine what’s going to happen next,” he said.
The conversation Kakande had with a Qatari employer who was being sued by his Ethiopian maid could help explain the troublesome attitude of such employers.
“I had a chance to talk to him by complimenting his car, as he was driving big new Land Cruiser. I said:’ It’s so sad this girl would take you to court.’ He said:’ It’s so sad that girl took me to court. Can you imagine? We treat her like a queen or a sister at home. We gave her food and drinks. We gave her everything.’ But the thing is this girl was not suing him for how she was being treated. She was suing over her salary. And this guy [employer] was trying to explain to me that they took her as a family member, so they didn’t have to pay her,” he said.
For laborers who worked under the scorching heat at the outdoor construction sites in Qatar, the reform of introducing breaks during the working hours did not bring real relief as they had nowhere to hide, Kakande added.
“One of the reforms they introduced was the mid-day break, which would allow workers building the stadium to take a break when it was too hot outside. But instead of providing air-conditioned shelters for them, they let the workers go outside on their own. They ended up in the streets and trying to find shades under the trees. But if you’ve been Qatar, those trees hardly provide you with any relief from the heat,” he said.
The labor rights advocate suggested that the key to protect the migrant workers in Qatar was to improve their education and awareness, which would allow more of them to fight the bureaucratic system and defend their basic rights.