FIFA 2022: Qatar is set for kick-off but migrant workers cry foul

Hundreds of Indian migrant workers and others, who built the FIFA stadiums and roads, are stuck in various camps, awaiting wages and end-of-service benefits

FIFA Qatar Indian workers
Migrant workers send back millions of much-needed foreign exchange to their home countries every year. But the Indian government does not appear to have extended any support. Image: iStock

At 5.30 pm India time on November 20, the Pakistan-made and Adidas-designed FIFA World Cup 2022 football will roll off with the Qatar-Ecuador inaugural match at Al Bayat stadium, some 60 km from Doha International Airport in Qatar.

Media reports claim that since 2010, after winning the bid to host the FIFA World Cup this year, more than ₹16 lakh-crore have been spent on preparing Qatar to conduct the world’s most exciting sports event.

Qatar has built seven stadiums for the World Cup, a new airport, a new metro rail system, a series of new roads, and around 100 new hotels. A new city has been built around the stadium that will host the final match.

Iconic English footballer David Beckham was paid ₹2,200 crore to be the tournament’s brand ambassador.

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Also read: David Beckham faces backlash for promoting Qatar ahead of FIFA World Cup

Labourers “stuck” in camps

But not everyone has benefited. Hundreds of Indian migrant workers and others, who built the stadiums and roads, are “stuck” in various camps, awaiting wages and end-of-service benefits. Some have moved to new companies, while many are clueless about what to do to reclaim their unpaid wages.

Indian workers comprise a sizable number in Qatar. Lok Sabha data reveal that 8,907 Indians migrated to Qatar in 2020. The number was 49,579 in 2021. And this year, up to July, it was 13,628. Overall, there were 691,539 Indians in Qatar in 2020, according to the Ministry of External Affairs.

The irony is that of all the Gulf countries, only the Qatar government has reformed the bonded labour system (kafala), to ensure the rights and welfare of workers. It is, therefore, considered a good place for workers.

A platform has been added to the Qatar labour department website, revealing the number of labour grievances to maintain transparency. Between January and August this year, 4,501 wage-related grievances were recorded. On average, some 18 wage protection complaints are being registered each day.

Also read: Rights group urges FIFA, Qatar to compensate World Cup workers

Voices from Qatar

Talking to The Federal, Issac Mathew (named changed), a quality control inspector at Al Jaber Group, said he had to get eight months’ salary and 16 years’ end-of-service benefits. “I am still here in Doha. I am staying here with my family. For the last two months, I haven’t paid the rent,” he said. Mathew added that he was clueless about whether he should file a case against the company and leave the country or stay back to get the money.

“My unpaid salary is around ₹13 lakh. Additionally, there are 16 years’ end-of-service benefits, too. How can I give up this money and leave?” he wondered.

Shyju Augustine (name changed), a draftsman from the same Al Jaber Group, said he has to “get around ₹9.5 lakh from the company” and that he “won’t leave the country without that money.” Augustine alleged that he had approached the Indian Embassy seeking a solution, but the officials did not show any interest in resolving his grievances.

The Al Jaber group laid off Mathew and Augustine, along with hundreds of others, between March and August this year.

Also read: FIFA World Cup 2022: Qatar stadiums likely to sell alcohol, says report

Uncertainty rules

Shibu S (name changed), an engineer with Al Jaber Construction, said he is yet to “get four months’ salary.” “Our section still has work. So, I have not resigned. I don’t know what will happen if I resign at this stage,” Shibu said. He added that in one of the camps, some 300 unpaid migrant workers had been “detained” in a camp.

“Even we are not allowed to go there. Those workers have been told that their money will be settled and they will be sent back soon,” Shibu claimed.

Workers from Al Bandary, a leading construction company in Qatar, told The Federal that they were facing the same situation.

Anil Kumar (name changed), an engineer at Al Bandary, said he had “resigned and moved to a new company” a few months ago. “But I don’t know how I will get my unpaid salary and end-of-service benefits,” he said.

“Since the Covid-19 outbreak, the company has been in trouble. The pay became erratic. In all, I am due to get six months’ salary and seven years’ EoS,” said Anil,  whose unpaid salary is around ₹9 lakh.

Watch: FIFA World Cup advanced by a day; Qatar launches 100-day countdown

Jail and deportation

On August 14, a few workers from Al Bandary and its subsidiary Electrowatt staged a protest in Doha — rare in an Arab country — demanding their unpaid wages. They were arrested, jailed, and deported.

Anwar M, 32, an Indian migrant worker at Al Bandary who was arrested and deported to India on September 2 after spending 20 days in jail, told The Federal that he was fooled. “I did not take part in the strike. Labourers were striking on the streets. I went there when I heard that officials were collecting details from workers who had not got their salaries or benefits. But it was a trap. The moment I shared my worker’s ID card, I was arrested,” he said. 

Anwar had been working in Al Bandary’s auto mechanical section as an automobile workshop supervisor since 2013. He resigned in June 2022. However, his nine years’ end-of-service benefits and seven months’ salary had not been cleared.

He and the others got their pending salaries and end-of-service benefits on the 14th day of their arrest. But they had to stay in prison for five more days, as there were delays in processing deportation papers. “After nine years of work, I had to leave the country like a criminal,” Anwar concluded.

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A failed protection system

In 2015, the Qatar government introduced a new system called the Wages Protection System (WPS), which ensures that all private companies pay their employees the agreed-upon salaries regularly, on time.

According to WPS, all companies must pay their workers through it within seven days of the due date.

Delays will lead to punishments, and reconciliation would be possible only if a complainant (worker) took his complaint of delayed payment back. Non-compliers can even be prosecuted, according to the amendment to the labour law.

Rafeek Ravuther, executive director of the Kerala-based Centre of Indian Migrant Studies, said he was “surprised how the WPS was not working in Qatar.”

“Why are workers, who have resigned or been repatriated, not being given their unpaid wages and end-of-service benefits,” wondered Rafeek. “Isn’t it the responsibility of the Qatar government to ensure that…,” he asked.

Also read: Qatar welcomes transgender and gay fans to 2022 FIFA World Cup

An apathetic government

Migrant workers send back millions of much-needed foreign exchange to their home countries every year. But the Indian government does not appear to have extended any support.

According to the Reserve Bank of India’s Fifth Remittance Survey released in July, India’s total inward remittances in 2022 stood at $85.6 billion (₹6.83 lakh-crore). Of that, 1.1 per cent came from Qatar. That is ₹7,000 crore in foreign exchange.

Unfortunately, neither the Indian Embassy nor any state government asks whether the returning worker has any wage-related grievances. Before leaving, a worker is allowed to file a complaint against the employer at the Embassy, but it is rarely acted upon.

Moreover, it is hard to fight any labour case in the Gulf. The worker must give a power of attorney to his friend to represent him during his absence. As migration is a Central subject in India, state governments have limitations in accepting complaints from aggrieved workers.

The Federal wrote to the Qatar ministry of information, Al Bandary, Al Jaber Group, and the Indian Embassy in Qatar, seeking a response to the workers’ claims. It is yet to receive a response from any of them. The story will be updated once The Federal gets a response. 

(Rejimon Kuttappan is an independent journalist and author of “Undocumented”)

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