I doubt that Nirmala Pakrin knows who David Beckham is, but she knows about Qatar.
Her husband, Rupchandra Rumba, a 24-year-old Nepalese, died in 2019, out of breath at a seedy workers’ camp outside Doha, while working for a contractor in one of the new World Cup stadiums.
Pakrin received compensation from the insurance plans her husband had taken out before leaving home, but her employer in Qatar paid her less than £ 1,500.
I visited her around the same time in the small room in which she lived on the outskirts of Kathmandu with her then six-year-old son, Niraj. “Keep asking a question,” he said, “Where is my dad?”
Like someone who met children like Niraj when visited nepal As a UNICEF ambassador, Beckham will hopefully think twice before signing up to represent Qatar.
But it has been widely reported that the former England captain, who visited Qatar this month, agreed to a deal to be an ambassador for the Qatar World Cup and beyond, for an astronomical fee.
A spokesperson for Beckham said: “[David] has seen the passion for soccer in the country and the long-term commitment that has been made to host the World Cup and deliver a lasting legacy for the region. He has always talked about the power of football as a positive force on many levels ”.
Other source said: “David believes in Qatar’s commitment to progress and that the World Cup, the first to be held in the Arab world, can bring about significant positive change.”
I was also in Qatar this month, but the image Beckham described is very different from what I saw, and I have witnessed eight years of reporting from the country.
Driving between the skyscrapers of Doha, I passed the gleaming twisted al-Bidda tower, home to the offices of the Qatar World Cup organizing committee, which were fitted out by workers from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, some of whom They received no payment for months.
Heading north, I drove to Lusail City, a district of flashy and quirky buildings, which will host the World Cup final. In 2014 I reported that one was being built by North Koreans employed in conditions that would likely constitute slave labor. It is now a luxury hotel.
On the outskirts of the city I passed labor camps where I have seen workers huddled 10 in a room, with hundreds sharing a handful of fly-infested bathrooms and kitchens.
The construction of the World Cup stadium has only involved a fraction of the vast migrant workforce in Qatar, but the event has fueled a construction boom (a new airport, roads, subway system, hotels) that has employed to many thousands, largely through private companies.
The organizing committee for the World Cup says it has been at the forefront of efforts to improve working conditions in the country, but as I drive to Al-Janoub stadium, I remember the workers I interviewed there in 2014, who said that they were paid so little. like 45p an hour. Four years later I met the devastated family of Tej Narayan Tharu, a Nepalese worker who died in the stadium.
Tharu was one of more than 6,500 workers from South Asia who have died in Qatar since he was granted the right to host the World Cup. Not all were construction workers, but 70% of their deaths were not properly investigated, according to an Amnesty International investigation.
There have been 38 deaths in World Cup construction projects, of which 35 have been classified by organizers as “not related to work.”
Beckham wouldn’t have seen any of this. Instead, he was photographed walking through Souq Waqif, a bazaar and diner popular with visitors, as long as they are not young migrant workers from South Asia. In 2016, I filmed them apparently being rejected by the police.
Last month I witnessed more low-wage migrant workers seemingly being kicked out of Aspire Park and the “VIP” wing of a shopping mall.
Beckham also visited Msheireb, perhaps the most elegant district in Qatar, full of the best hotels and restaurants. It’s also packed with security guards who put up with long shifts in the sweltering heat. We know about their lives because one of them, a Kenyan named Malcolm Bidali, wrote articles describing the serious abuse he and others suffered. In May, he was detained for almost a month, accused of publishing “fake news” and fined 25,000 riyals (almost £ 5,000).
When I asked a Nepalese security guard in Msheireb if he would like to watch a World Cup match, he shrugged and said, “I would like to, but how can I pay for a ticket? The World Cup is not for us ”.
Qatari authorities cite recent labor reforms as a sign that things are changing. Several international organizations and unions have described the reforms as a “new era” for workers’ rights. In September 2020, the regime announced the end of the kafala sponsorship system, whereby workers could not change jobs without their employer’s permission, leaving them vulnerable to forced labor, a form of slavery.
That policy appears to have had some impact when it was first introduced, with Qatari authorities claiming in the summer that 100,000 workers had changed jobs. But in recent months it seems that employers have started to reject it.
“My company refuses to let me go,” said an Indian security guard at a luxury hotel. “They threaten us, saying that they will deduct the cost of our room and bedding from our salary and refuse to pay the end-of-service benefit if we try to leave. We are still under their control. “
The other flagship reform, the introduction of a minimum wage, which came into effect in March 2021, is just as flawed. The minimum wage was set at 1,000 riyals (£ 200) a month, plus food and subsistence. If food and meal are not provided, the workers must receive an additional allowance of 300 riyals per meal and 500 riyals per meal.
The monthly salary is 1 pound per hour. The food allowance means that workers have £ 2 a day to feed themselves.
Since when is a minimum wage of £ 1 an hour, in one of the world’s richest countries per capita, something to applaud?
A Qatari official acknowledged that its labor system is “still a work in progress” but said its labor reforms have benefited more than a million migrant workers.
“Since making the decision to use the World Cup as a catalyst to accelerate reforms, Qatar has engaged collaboratively and constructively with a variety of international partners and critics,” the official said. “The laws of Qatar have set new standards for the region… This progress does not mean that our work is finished. With the new laws now in place, the emphasis has shifted to effective implementation and enforcement. “
The official said Qatar has stepped up its efforts to identify and punish companies trying to evade the law with stricter penalties for offenders and new courts to give workers access to justice. “Qatar is committed to protecting workers from all forms of exploitation and abuse. Labor reform is a complex issue and we believe that solutions are best found through dialogue and commitment, ”added the official.
Qatar and its sponsors should be exploring ways to compensate all workers who have been forced to pay illegal recruitment fees, whose wages have been paid late or not paid, and who have suffered horribly low wages.
This is not to say that there has been no progress. Passport confiscation appears to be less common and most workers (with the exception of some security guards) appear to be receiving at least minimum wage. While wages are still surprisingly low, they are higher than when I started reporting from Qatar in 2013, but so are living costs.
A spokesman for the Qatar World Cup organizing committee said its “commitment to ensuring the health, safety and dignity of all workers employed in our projects has remained steadfast and unwavering.”
The spokesperson said the committee’s work had resulted in significant improvements in living standards and working conditions, and had accelerated Qatar’s recent “pioneering” labor reforms.
“We recognize that there is a long road ahead and we are committed, with our partners in Qatar and beyond, to ensuring that we continue to deliver on the legacy we have promised. A legacy that improves lives and lays the foundation for just, sustainable and lasting labor reforms, ”said the spokesperson.
But even if you buy the official narrative, these reforms are too little, too late. Almost all the key World Cup infrastructure completed by the end of 2020. So, however you look at it, this will be a World Cup built on exploitation.
So what should footballers like Beckham do?
Follow the lead of other footballers who have taken the time to get involved, educate themselves and take action.
Norwegian, German, Danish and Dutch teams have already defended workers’ rights during the qualifying rounds of the World Cup.
Sweden canceled a training camp in Qatar due to worker rights concerns. Liverpool refused to stay in a hotel where I had discovered allegations of labor abuse.
As Norway and Southampton footballer Mohamed Elyounoussi said in a recent interview with The Guardian. “You can’t just go in and talk about that country if you don’t have knowledge about the country or how it works.” He urged people to listen to organizations like Amnesty. “I think it’s good to hear them. We have a voice and I think it’s good that we can use it for a greater good. “
The most important people to listen to are the group Beckham seems to have forgotten about: the men who built the stadiums and infrastructure he seems so keen to promote.
On a wet afternoon, I sat on the grassy edge of the ledge, a promenade that circles the bay in the heart of Doha, with a group of Nepalese workers. His verdict was clear. “They just use us and then throw us away,” said one. “It’s simple. They just don’t care.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism