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DOHA, Qatar — The executive committee of FIFA, world soccer's governing body, has met in Zurich to discuss whether to reschedule the 2022 World Cup in the winter, so that players can avoid Qatar's scorching summer heat.
But the timing issue was overshadowed by concerns that migrant workers building the infrastructure in the run-up to the event are being subjected to abusive labor conditions, verging on what one report called "modern-day slavery."
Nepalese laborers make up one of the biggest groups of blue-collar workers in Qatar. Drawn by plentiful jobs in the state, especially in the booming construction sector, about 400,000 Nepalese work in Qatar today, constituting 20 percent of Qatar's roughly 2 million people. On a per capita basis, more Nepalese probably live in Qatar than any other country aside from Nepal itself.
But an article published last week in the British newspaper The Guardian stated that dozens of Nepalese workers in Qatar died there this summer and that thousands more toil under abusive conditions. The article reported instances of employers confiscating workers' passports and denying laborers access to free drinking water.
The report, titled "Revealed: Qatar's World Cup 'slaves,'" also said it found "evidence of forced labor on a huge World Cup infrastructure project," describing the situation as "one of the richest nations exploiting one of the poorest to get ready for the world's most popular sporting tournament."
Representatives of the Nepalese and Qatari governments criticized the article at a press conference earlier this week. Ali al-Marri, the chairman of Qatar's National Human Rights Committee, said there is "no slavery or forced labor in Qatar," and that "the information that TheGuardianreported is false and the numbers cited by them are exaggerated."
Mohammad Ramadan, a legal adviser for Nepalese citizens who works for Nepal's government, said: "We deny all that is mentioned in these false reports, and ask the bodies that publish them not to use Nepali workers as a means to achieve their inappropriate targets and agendas. We also stress that all Nepali workers are safe and fully respected."
However, Qatari Labor Minister Abdullah Saleh al-Khulaifi promised to hire more labor inspectors to enforce the law and more translators to deal with workers' complaints.
On Wednesday, the Ministry of Labor announced it had commissioned DLA Piper, a prominent international law firm, to investigate claims of forced labor.
Given Nepal's political instability and widespread poverty, many young people choose to leave their home country to work abroad. Qatar is among the top destinations, with its rapidly growing economy in need of cheap manpower.
Many Nepalese earn as little as — or less than — 800 riyals ($220) a month working in Qatar, where the average income is among the highest in the world. There is no legally mandated minimum wage, although some countries have made bilateral agreements with Qatar in which their nationals are supposed to be paid at or above a certain amount.
Yet given Nepal's per capita GDP of only about $700 a year, some see working in the Gulf region as a better option.
One Nepalese man who has been working in Qatar since the 1990s, first as a construction worker and now in the energy sector, said, "Everyone looks down on Nepalis" there, "even the Indians," because the Nepalese tend to be among the poorest and least educated workers in the country.
Although the man — who did not want to give his name or even a pseudonym for fear of adverse consequences — said he is treated well in his job, he said he has friends who live with up to 10 other people in cramped quarters in Doha’s Industrial Area, and who are not paid on time by their employers.
He equivocated when asked whether he would recommend that his friends in Nepal come to work in Qatar, saying it depended on the employer. "Be informed before you come," he said. "Make sure the company (in Qatar) and the recruitment agency (in Nepal) are legitimate."
Despite Ramadan's claims that "all Nepali workers are safe and fully respected" in Qatar, the Nepalese government does not seem to have always agreed: In August 2012, it issued a ban on women under the age of 30 working in the Gulf states as domestic laborers, claiming widespread abuse.
Most recently, Nepal's ambassador to Qatar, Maya Kumari Sharma, was dismissed from her post after having referred to Qatar in an interview earlier this year as an "open jail" regarding its treatment of workers.
She later apologized, claiming she had been misquoted — but nevertheless, the Nepalese government announced last month that it would recall her amid criticism of what some described as her lack of diplomatic qualifications.
Countries like Nepal that send laborers to the Gulf "face a dilemma in that they really have two objectives," said Martin Ruhs, a professor of political economy at Oxford, in an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this year. "On the one hand, they want to encourage the immigration of their workers to some of these countries, because there's important remittances to be had. At the same time, they're obviously concerned about the protection of these workers while working abroad."
The Nepalese Embassy in Qatar and Qatar's Ministry of Labor did not respond to requests for comment.
A 'culture of impunity'?
Of the 44 Nepalese workers reported to have died in Qatar this summer, more than half the deaths were due to workplace accidents or heart attacks. Temperatures in Qatar can exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, and housing conditions at some labor camps have been criticized for overcrowding and poorly functioning electricity.
Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf labor expert with Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera: "If you don't provide workers with copious amounts of water in the heat, if you don't ensure they're well rested, and that they take their rest in the shade, and that their lodging is well ventilated and air-conditioned, then they are at a severe risk of heat-related illness, including heat exhaustion and death."
When asked why so many died from heart attacks, Qatar's labor ministry responded to The Guardian that "this question would be better suited for the relevant health authorities or the government of Nepal." It pointed out that Qatari law mandates that all building sites in the country provide free water to workers, claiming it enforces a law requiring that workers be paid regularly, and penalizes companies that do not do so.
McGeehan, however, said that although relevant law exists, a "culture of impunity" in Qatar means that wrongdoers are not held accountable. "Violators of the labor law are not held criminally responsible for their actions … You get a paltry slap on the wrist, or your firm is blacklisted, but neither of those sanctions appear to have any deterrent effect."
Khalifa Saleh Al Haroon, the founder of the website iLoveQatar.net and a local blogger, said media reports have not acknowledged the "amazing improvements" in labor conditions in Qatar. "Their stories are hardly balanced. The community does care about blue-collar workers, the government does fine companies that violate labor laws ... I think that most people are unhappy due to the motivations behind the (Guardian) article," he said. "If we weren't getting the World Cup, would they even care?"
The International Trade Union Confederation has estimated that as many as 4,000 people could die during the run-up to the World Cup. One estimate puts Qatar's occupational death rate at twice that of the European Union and eight times higher than that in the U.K.