DOHA, Qatar—Men crammed together, dozens to a room, on bunk beds so close they can reach over and shake hands.
Qatar, on paper at least, has rules that forbid such uncomfortable conditions for its massive workforce of migrant labourers. Yet this is how the government-owned transport company, which the Gulf nation will use to ferry visitors around the 2022 World Cup, has housed some of its workers.
As Qatar employs legions of migrants to build stadiums and other works for the football showcase, widespread labour abuses documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other critics have blackened its name and $160 billion preparations.
Hundreds of worker deaths, many apparently from cardiac arrests, have also fueled concerns that labourers are being overworked in desert conditions and shoddily treated. Reporting this April on a fact-finding mission, the U.N’s special adviser on migrants’ rights, Francois Crepeau, cited “anecdotal evidence that too many of these mostly young men return home in a coffin.”
Problems, The Associated Press found, aren’t limited to the construction sector.
Accommodation for drivers of buses and of Qatar’s distinctive turquoise taxis is a walled-off compound in the bleak industrial zone of Doha, the capital. Dust-covered cadavers of burned-out buses and broken taxis abandoned on surrounding wasteland make the luxury malls and gleaming towers of central Doha seem far away.
The compound walls and flag over the main gate bear the name Mowasalat. The transporter plans to have 7,000 taxis on the roads by the World Cup.
In one dormitory block, in what drivers said was meant to be a recreation room for table tennis and other pastimes, the AP saw two dozen bunk beds in three tight lines.
The arrangements were apparently meant to be only temporary, but drivers said they had lived like this for months. Without lockers, they hung clothes and towels from bed frames. In a corner, one man gave another a shave. Drivers said around 30 of them were housed there and that other blocks in the compound which the AP didn’t visit had similarly crowded rooms.
Yet a 2005 ministerial decree said workers should not be housed more than four to a room or be made to sleep in bunks.
In its company brochure, Mowasalat speaks of “excellent housing facilities” for employees. But even a standard dormitory room the AP saw slept six, also on bunks. Drivers said the close living is physically and morally wearing, with rest difficult and quarrels easy.
Mowasalat did not reply to emailed questions. But it did appear to thin out numbers in the supposed “recreation” rooms after the AP showed a photo of the cramped conditions to Mowasalat executives. Drivers subsequently reached by phone said some of them were moved to other rooms. One said he was transferred from a room with 43 drivers, where he spent two months, to another with 16, still on bunks.
“Thanks for highlighting our plight to some Mowasalat management,” another driver wrote by email to the AP. “Since you raised the mat(t)er they have slightly decongested the common room. Still it is no decent way for workers to live but it’s a step forward.”
Qatar’s World Cup organizers are trying to limit the reputational damage of labour abuses by treating their own workers better than the norm.
Officials for the Supreme Committee putting together the World Cup gave the AP a tour of housing for stadium builders from Southeast Asia. They sleep three to a room, some with en-suite bathrooms, and on their own beds, not bunks, with curtains for additional privacy. They even have a pool. In the free canteen, workers heaped their plates with rice, flatbreads and curries.
In his consulting room with the sign “WE ARE HERE FOR YOU” on one wall, the camp’s jovial doctor said the workers’ health problems are generally no more serious than allergic coughs and sniffles from working in dust and sand, skin itches from sweating, and the aches, pains, sprains and scrapes of manual labour.
World Cup workers are also covered by special regulations which lay out their “right to be treated in a manner that ensures at all times their wellbeing, health, safety and security” and detail how contractors must ethically recruit, promptly pay, and decently house them.
The Supreme Committee’s power to award tournament-related contracts also gives it leverage to force improvements.
“I have had to make the phone call several times to contractors to say ‘Sorry mate, we’ve been to your camp. We don’t think you’re treating your people the way we want anyone on our sites to be treated, so you’re out of the running, I can’t work with you,”‘ said Tamim el-Abed, project manager of Lusail Stadium earmarked for the 2022 opening game and final.
“They scrabble around trying to pull together a superficial Band-Aid response. We see through that,” he said. “Sometimes they do a genuine turn-around and they improve their facilities.”
“It’s about culture change,” he said.
However, to critics, singling out World Cup workers for better treatment smacks of double standards. They want deeper, across-the-board reforms for all.
Even at the stadium builders’ facility, not all are treated equally. A Kenyan security guard there complained to the AP that six sleep in his small room, on bunks. Supreme Committee officials said the man isn’t directly employed by them but by a subcontractor.
“Putting in place a two-tier labour system, which is what they are talking about, is not much of a legacy,” said Nicholas McGeehan, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“I don’t think it’s something that we should accept,” McGeehan said. “It’s OK to protect World Cup workers but it’s not OK to protect, what, transport workers? Taxi drivers? Cleaners? Do they not deserve the same?”