THE WORKERS CUP – The Football Slaves

Low cost manpower. Extremely low cost. More than a million and a half workers have arrived in the last years in Qatar to work on the huge building sites for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. They have arrived from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and, of course, increasingly from Africa.

According to theInternational Trade Union Confederation (Special Report -THE CASE AGAINST QATAR), the number of workers on the Qatar sites, lacking in any legislation, could even reach the stratospheric figure of 600,000, that is a dozen a week. Even before it begins, the 2022 World Cup will have cost the lives of at least 4,000 migrant workers. For Qatar, the business of the World Cup is worth 14 billion dollars.

Adam Sobel, with his documentary THE WORKERS CUP presented at the 2017 Sundance Festival, goes behind the scenes of the world football championship of 2022, in stories about who is making it all possible, even at the cost of their lives.

The human rights’ organizations speak of thousands of work-related deaths (they have estimated more than a thousand from the beginning of 2011) resulting from the long working days with temperatures hitting 50°C. The main cause of death is cardiac arrest. According to Human Rights Watch, millions of migrant workers run the risk of dying in all the Gulf countries due to inhumane working conditions.

Migration in Qatar is not a new phenomenon. It began in the 1950s, when the country was still a British colony, with Iranians, Pakistanis and Yemenites employed mainly in the oil industry. After independence (1971) and the nationalization of the oil industry (1977), the war in the Middle East changed the composition of the migratory flows, with new arrivals from Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Then, in the 1980s, it was the turn of the Filipinos, Egyptians, Sudanese and, finally, the Indians and Bengali, who from the 1990s have become the most numerous.

Qatari make up only 10% of a population of about 2.3 million. A minority in their own home. The foreigners account for 93% of the work force. Immigration, as in the other Gulf states, is regulated by Kafala or sponsorship, a set of rules that allows private agency contractors, sub-contractors and work force suppliers to manage the migrants, “legally seized” on their arrival, their passports being immediately confiscated. They cannot change jobs nor return home. Kafala, in practice, is the legal regulation of third millennium slavery. Despite being recently amended (2015), the most oppressive aspects of the law still remain. For all the period of the contract – usually 4 years – the foreign workers remain totally bound to the agencies that had recruited them.

THE WORKERS CUP makes us aware of the dreams, but especially the bitter delusions of many of the young workers entrapped by the wealthy and heavy-handed Qatar sovereignty, engaged, in the last years, in a “resistance” position (not only of al Jazeera) to the shut-down policy adopted by Saudi Arabia which would like to condemn the monarchy for its support of Islamic terrorism (Muslim Brotherhood) and its close relations with Iran.

Adam Sobel does not give in to pity nor the temptation of an outspoken and loud accusation, but limits himself to catching on camera the building sites, the camp dormitories, the shiny towers of downtown Doha, the desolate shopping malls.

“This is not what they expected,” recounts an employee of an Indian recruiting agency, “they see the photos of skyscrapers and think they are going to a sort of paradise. Then they find themselves in the camps which are a completely different thing.”

Indeed, they are another thing. From the paradise of dreams to the hell of the reality of the camps, squalid and overcrowded barrack dormitories on the outskirts of Doha, far from any place of a normal “sociality” or any human contact with the local people. A real apartheid.

Under the watchful scrutiny of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and to some extent the United Nations, the Qatar Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy has sponsored for 5 years the Workers Cup Football Tournament. The football tournament of the World Cup workers to «involve them in the spirit of the event, to overcome their segregation, enhance their presence and their contribution to the economy of Qatar», so declares a Qatari official for television.

THE WORKERS CUP flashes back to scenes from the 2015 tournament with 24 construction companies participating. The winning prize for the worker-players is about 400 dollars, twice their monthly wage. Kenyans, Ghanaians, Indians, Nepalese. Paul, Kenneth, Umesh, Padam, Graham, Arjun, Bernard, Biju, Douglas, Kenneth, Jasper, Purna, Samuel, Umesh, Jasper …. they all dedicate themselves to training, to honor the jersey of Gulf Construction & Co., to win for their fans and for themselves. For someone like Kenneth Hamissah, the GCC team captain, it could be an opportunity to fulfil his dream, to become a professional football player. But it’s impossible, because for another 4 years he is the property of Gulf Construction & Co.

“I used to love soccer. I tried to find out how to enter some club so I could play abroad. Then, in Ghana, I met this agent who told me he was looking for workers to go to Qatar. He asked me for 1,500 dollars, that’s a lot of money in Ghana. It’s not what I expected, we don’t play soccer, he lied to me. After arriving I realized that I was in a work camp.” (Kenneth)

“This tournament is a mockery, it’s not for the workers, it’s to get other contracts […], and just to print some articles in the newspapers and show that the whites behave well here. They are under pressure, all the world knows the human cost of the 2022 World Cup,” the manager of an agency explains, “and there are now many checks by the United Nations, Amnesty International, there is more attention on worker rights, however, the rules in the dormitory camps remain very strict. But they have no alternative, we also provide the housing. When their contract expires, they are once again in debt and must return here, a never-ending story.”

Samuel Alabi Ago also comes from Ghana.

“I arrived in Qatar a week ago. I used to play in the under-12s, under-14s, under-17s. I even played in First Division. But I couldn’t afford to buy food, and here they offered me a job, the pay isn’t good but better than in Ghana. I lied to my father, I told him I was here to play soccer. Money is money, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. If this is hell, it’s better than paradise in Ghana.”

“Money flows in here, every new building must be better than the last, they have so much money […]. There’s no reason to go anywhere else. Before I was in Dubai for 3 years working on the sites […], my dream is to build a house for my family. But even if I worked another 8 years here, I couldn’t afford to buy a car back home. A migrant worker cannot get a visa for his wife unless he earns more than 2,750 dollars a month.” (Padam)

Padam comes from Nepal along with another 400,000 migrant workers. With his 400 dollars a month he cannot go anywhere “[…] Everyone had left and so, blindly, I did the same, then I discovered the reality, but too late, I’m 8 years too late.” He has lived separated from his wife for 8 years. They lived only a few months together after the wedding.

The number of workers who will be arriving in the next years to build the stadiums and infrastructures will increase – by more than 300,000 -, mainly from India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The decision to assign the organization of the 2022 World Cup to a very rich country, but lacking in human rights legislation, with intolerable summer temperatures and without any soccer culture, has been very controversial right from the beginning. There have been accusations of corruption regarding some of the FIFA managers, and so far FIFA has predictably shown itself to be quite reluctant and incapable of placing any real pressure on Qatar.

Still 5 years from the first kick-off, the 2022 World Cup is risking to pass into history’s annals as the sporting event of human rights abuses. A first, that only Russia might take over with its treatment, no less inhumane, of the workers employed in the constructions for the 2018 World Cup. They have come from Central Asia, Belarus, the Ukraine and North Korea. Slavery, as always, adheres to its geopolitical map.

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