#PayUpFIFA campaign launched
Exactly six months from today on 21 November, 2022 the world will be glued to the media watching the kick-off game of the World Cup live from Qatar. Nepalis will be among the estimated 3 billion people across the globe tuning in.
During previous games, neighbourhoods in every corner of Nepal were gripped with World Cup fever. With a segregated fan base, neighbourhoods would be festooned with flags of their favourite teams with some ardent fans supporting Latin American teams while others supporting European giants.
From special ‘World Cup’ haircuts mimicking their favourite football players to ardent fans turning to the divine power for their favourite team to win, the games continue to consume the country every four years.
This year’s World Cup in Qatar, however, is different. For Nepalis, it is not just love for the beautiful game. It is much more personal.
Nepalis have played an important role in transforming Qatar ever since it was awarded the World Cup hosting rights in 2010. The eight stadiums in Qatar where the games will be held are built on the blood, sweat and tears of tens of thousands of migrant workers from Asia and Africa, including from Nepal.
They also helped build the surrounding infrastructure including hotels, roads, and the metro which were necessary for holding the games. Ram is a Nepali engaged in the construction of the Lusail stadium, where the final World Cup match will be played this year. He told us: “It seems these structures have come up virtually overnight, it is unbelievable. But I have come to realize it is all about money.”
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Between 2012/13 and 2017/18, the number of labour approvals issued to Nepalis seeking jobs in Qatar exceeded 100,000 annually, peaking at 128,550 in 2013/14. Remittances the workers send help support their families back home.
But it also comes at a cost. Most workers who went to Qatar paid high recruitment costs borrowed informally at exorbitant interest rates. Others returned home empty handed as wage theft victims. And many lost their lives, mostly to unexplained causes.
In the six months lead-up to the tournament in Qatar, human rights groups are blowing the whistle on World Cup fouls, and say it is time to pay up for the abuses.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) along with other human rights groups, labour unions and international football fan groups have launched a global coalition demanding that FIFA and the Qatar government provide remedy for the abuses suffered by migrant workers.
A global campaign called #PayUpFIFA has also been launched by HRW, calling on the international football governing body FIFA to provide adequate remedy and to avoid the legacy of what they call a ‘World Cup of Shame’.
They say that besides the Qatari authorities, FIFA also shares responsibility for the price migrant workers had to pay to make the World Cup 2022 possible. Rights groups accuse FIFA of being a ‘dismal steward of protecting and promoting human rights in Qatar’.
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A joint letter sent to Gianni Infantino (above), President of FIFA when the governing body awarded the tournament to Qatar, says it knew or should have known the risks this would pose to migrant workers welfare given the country’s poor human rights record and the ban on trade unions. And yet it did so without placing on Qatar any conditions for the protection of labour rights, they say.
In awarding the 2022 World Cup without imposing any conditions to avoid foreseeable labour rights abuses and subsequently failing to take timely and effective preventive measures, FIFA is accused of contributing to the widespread abuse of migrant workers on World Cup-related projects that followed.
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To be sure, after international media spotlight, Qatar has introduced labor reforms including removing requirements for exit permits to leave the country, allowing workers to legally change jobs and introducing minimum wages.
But the rights groups say that these reforms were introduced too late, and were too little to address abuses, and too lax in their enforcement. They are said to look good on paper but have translated poorly to practice.
Consequently, there are still reports of unpaid wages, high recruitment costs, deplorable living conditions, and death including from heat stress. It was only a decade after being awarded the hosting rights for the World Cup, that Qatar last year introduced strong heat stress regulations that prohibit outdoor work when the wet-bulb globe temperature exceeds 32.1 degrees. The previous legislation that prohibited work during certain hours of the day even when temperature could be dangerously high beyond those hours.
However, this much needed reform came only in 2021, when much of the construction work including building stadiums and surrounding infrastructure were already completed and when many had suffered adverse health consequences doing outside work in the dangerous heat.
There have been at least 37 deaths of migrant workers at World Cup construction sites. But many more thousands have also lost their lives during construction of other infrastructure for the World Cup. Visuals of bodies coming home have been a common sight, leading to social media outrage and a recurring theme in news reports. In Kathmandu, the coffins arrive on flights from Doha, and the same planes take off with more migrant workers to Qatar.
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Families were left in the dark about what killed their loved one because the deaths were not investigated. 'Died in his sleep’ (सुत्दा सुत्दै मर्यो) has become a colloquial Nepali term and the fatalities were attributed to ‘natural causes’.
Mostly, there was nothing natural about them – they were a result of overwork, heat stroke and official apathy. The Nepal government’s compensation scheme from the Worker’s Welfare Fund has been a lifeline for many families of the dead, although those without valid labour permits were ineligible for support. The government also provided free transportation of the coffins back to their villages, which soon became a thriving industry for private companies.
At a press conference on 18 May at the launch of its campaign on remedy for migrants, Human Rights Watch screened a video capturing the stories of Nepalis who could be potential beneficiaries of such a remedy fund.
This includes Mairul Khaitun and Manju Devi, widows of migrant workers struggling to make ends meet and continuing to repay loans that their husbands took for the jobs in Qatar that killed them. According to Khaitun, they gave only his remaining wages to the family after her husband's death.
"If someone helps me, I will be able to eat properly, live decently. Without help, how can I educate my children?" she asks.
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Devi, another widow, says: "You ask, how is it going? Well, it’s just going. We eat whatever we can find and get."
FIFA or Qatar cannot do much to undo the emotional and financial toll of the loss of lives and livelihoods as those faced by Khaitun and Devi, but rights activists say the remedy fund would provide some respite to the struggling families.
Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said: “Migrant workers including Nepalis suffered serious harm preparing for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. As part of FIFA’s human rights responsibilities, FIFA should work with Qatar and others to set aside at least $440 million, the same amount as the prize money provided to World Cup teams, that can be used to compensate abused workers.”
Remedy is one of the pillars of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that FIFA adopted in 2016. It has the resources and the responsibility, and should not leave behind victims or their families as the tournament fast approaches.
“We know FIFA has the money — they are expected to make $6 billion in revenue for the Qatar World Cup. They can at least dedicate the same amount of money they are paying to football teams with millionaire athletes to address the serial wage theft and unexplained deaths scores of migrant workers faced,” Page added.
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A recently launched report Predictable and Preventable by Amnesty International says the remediation program should be governed in a participatory way following consultation with stakeholders including migrant workers, surviving family members, and trade unions.
It needs to be easily accessible to workers and families, many of whom will no longer be in Qatar. The report points to examples from other remediation programs such as those designed for victims of Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh.
FIFA says that it is currently ‘evaluating the proposal’ for the remedy fund. But rights groups say there is need for those with leverage over FIFA, including football associations, fans and sponsors, to ensure victims of abuse are provided adequate reparations. Football associations have found themselves under increasing pressure to speak up. And a few have set good examples.
Most recently at the FIFA congress in Doha, Lise Klaveness, the Norwegian FA President, called out FIFA’s failure to protect human rights when selecting Qatar to host the World Cup, urging it to ensure that migrant workers injured and families of the deceased are cared for.
Tim Sparv, a retired Finnish footballer who showed solidarity with the global campaign for remedy call on social media had previously written a compelling piece calling on players to engage more actively, ‘We need to talk about Qatar’.
“I was unaware of what was really going on in Qatar. I tend to look at big organisations like FIFA and just assume that they know what they’re doing,” Sparv said.
Multiple teams including from Norway, Germany and the Netherlands have worn human rights jerseys during matches to protest against migrant rights abuses in Qatar.
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Nepal must now send skilled workers to Qatar, Nepali Times
As the tournament draws close and the cheers begin, the next six months will see increased pressure on FIFA and the Qatari authorities from fans, players and sponsors to ensure that workers harmed to make the tournament possible are adequately compensated.
By speaking up, fans from countries like Nepal where the workers are from also have an important role to ensure that families like that of Khaitun and Devi get some support.
As the country prepares to deliver the World Cup and host over 1.2 million visitors, migrant workers who form over 95 per cent of the Qatari workforce will again be indispensable. But there is danger that many will again be short-changed.
Migrants including Nepalis will be serving as waiters, security guards, housekeepers and drivers, among others during the tournament. Rights group warn that just as in the construction phase of the World Cup when stadium workers who formed less than 1.5 per cent of the total labor force were held at higher standards, only those service sector workers in luxury hotels or football training sites will be held at higher labor standards. The rest, who will also be serving World Cup visitors, might continue to fall between the cracks.
With the tournament drawing close, and as construction projects wrap up, the country is also said to be preparing to send back many workers on long leaves or for good. The worry is that the demobilisation plan may mean workers will be sent back without all their dues being cleared.
Citizens of Nepal and other south Asian countries toiled to transform the country from a desert to the gleaming state-of-the-art stadiums, accommodation and other infrastructure as it prepares to host the most popular global sporting event in the world.
Rights groups say that had Qatar followed through on its promises for reform and granted workers their basic rights, the World Cup would be viewed much differently -- national pride at having helped enable the tournament that unites the world.
Instead, there is a bitter aftertaste about the last decade when scores of workers tied to the World Cup suffered due to the complacency of their own governments, the Qataris and FIFA. Many citizens of Nepal and other countries paid a high price for making the World Cup 2022 possible.
Read also: FIFA a chance to improve welfare of Nepali workers in Qatar, Upasana Khadka
Nepal welcomes Qatar labour reform, Upasana Khadka