Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Will life get better for Qatar’s migrant workers now the World Cup is over?

With the World Cup over, the migrant workers who made it possible are asking: where next?

Pramod Acharya
19 December 2022, 12.01am

Migrant workers have their papers checked at Kathmandu airport

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Jenny Matthews/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

For nearly 12 years now, the preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar has shone a spotlight on the use and abuse of migrant workers in the global economy today. Hundreds of thousands of workers went into debt paying recruiters for a job placement; many were never paid what they were promised; and thousands returned only after they had died. Now the spectacle is nearly done. The pain, so well reported on, is nearly over.

So, for those migrant workers who survived, a question: where to next?

Anywhere but home

Outside his hut in Nepal’s southern plains, Ramesh is splitting bamboo to make a basket for use around the home. Since he returned from Qatar, where he helped build a bus depot, he’s been doing chores like this – household work for which he isn’t paid.

“My job in Qatar was not easy. It was way harder than bamboo weaving. But at least I was earning some money there,” the 27-year-old said. “I had hoped to repay the loans and start saving money for the future. But that didn’t happen.”

In Qatar, his monthly salary had been 1000 riyals ($275). He described this as “minimal” for such grueling work, but said that earning “something” there was better than having “nothing” in his impoverished hometown. Now he’s back, sent home after less than a year on the job, and in debt. Like many migrant workers, Ramesh had taken out loans to cover the cost of recruitment. He had paid 155,000 rupees ($1170) at a 36% annual interest rate to get to Qatar, he said. With the money he’d earned while there, he’d be able to repay only 120,000 rupees.

He believes the only way to clear the debt is to find another job overseas.

Nepal is full of returned migrant workers, who, like Ramesh, now find themselves in situations even more desperate than when they left. According to Nepal’s Ministry of Labor, over 116,000 Nepali migrant workers returned from Qatar in the first ten months of 2022. More come every month. The number of workers going to Qatar, meanwhile, has dropped by nearly 45% in the same period.

In truth it’s a misnomer to say that migrant workers have ‘returned’. Qatar may no longer be the destination of choice, but they won’t be staying long. “Some of my friends have already gone abroad,” Ramesh said. “I’m also trying to go. All we want is work and pay. We poor people can’t stay home being jobless.”

The price of work

Southeast Nepal, where Ramesh lives, sends more migrant workers abroad than any other part of the country. Apart from some agricultural work, which is irregular and low-paid, there simply aren’t many jobs locally that pay enough to live.

Those are found overseas, but they come with a price. There is almost no chance of getting a visa without paying hefty fees to recruiters. And with no resources of their own, poor workers have little choice but to borrow money and hope that foreign employment pays off in the long run.

One Nepali worker now in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, said that he had paid 300,000 rupees ($2270) to get there after he was deported from Qatar. He thought a carpentry job in Malaysia would serve him better than subsistence farming at home. “Work abroad is the only option to make a living in my village,” he said. “Many youths like me are looking for overseas jobs. It could be Malaysia, or Qatar, or anywhere in Gulf.”

If my financial situation was good, I would never have thought of coming here.

Workers’ desperation can be seen at the international airport in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. More than 2,100 workers depart from there every day, according to the records of the Department of Foreign Employment. The same airport receives 3-4 dead bodies of workers on average each day, mainly from the Gulf nations and Malaysia.

Sometimes the gamble pays off. There are workers in Nepal who have improved their financial status by working abroad. But for many, having a decent life at home after working long hours overseas remains a distant dream.

Kamal, 37, spent 14 years working on construction sites in Qatar. He fell sick many times while he was there. He developed high blood pressure, witnessed the deaths and injuries of co-workers, and faced countless salary delays. He traveled around Al Dafna, Al Khor, Al Wakhra, and Lusail City to work long shifts on pipeline and road projects. He returned to Nepal in April 2022.

The main thing he has to show for all this work is a one-story, brick-walled house in southeast Nepal. He exhausted his savings building it. Now, to continue to pay the bills, he is now considering going abroad again. “I have to pay for my daughters’ education. I have to pay for medical bills,” he said. “I want to work for five more years. If I have some savings by that time, I could make the rest of my life easier.”

Kamal feels humiliated by the way workers are treated in Qatar, but he says he’d return if he could. “I have already worked enough there. I want to stay home,” he said. “But I can’t earn money here. So what can I do?”

Nepal’s custom of dowries, which has been made illegal but is still widely practiced, adds pressure on Kamal to continue work. “I must have savings for my three daughters’ weddings,” he said. “In this area, the wedding of each daughter costs at least 500,000 rupees.”

And the cost to oneself

These sorts of economic pressures inform migrant workers’ decision to spend years of their lives abroad, far away from their families. In 12 years of married life, Upendra has spent only four years with his wife. Trapped between poverty and debt, he previously worked in India and Saudi Arabia. Now he is in Qatar, as his earnings from previous jobs were not enough to repay the loans. “I miss my family so much. If my financial situation was good, I would never have thought of coming here,” Upendra said. “People have seen high-rise buildings in Qatar. They have seen beautiful stadiums. But who understands what workers are experiencing here? It’s beyond words.”

We know we’re exploited. But still, we can’t give up.

Like tens of thousands of other Nepali migrant workers in Qatar, Upendra did the shovelling, hauling, and cleaning at construction sites for stadiums and other infrastructure. Even in the extreme summer heat, he continued working with limited access to water and rest. He slept on a mattress found in a rubbish heap in a contained labor camp. He always felt cheated and exploited by his employer. But he said he had limited say over his working and living conditions there, and no better options back in Nepal.

“We uneducated and unskilled workers can’t get better jobs,” he said. “This is the life of migrant workers. We know we’re exploited. But still, we can’t give up.”

It’s an outlook that Prem knows well. His leg was lacerated by a grinding machine while working on an apartment complex being built for World Cup visitors. He couldn’t work for five months and used a wheelchair to move. The company sent him home, but he chose to go back to Qatar as soon as he recovered.

“Honestly, I don’t want to work here. But I also don’t want to see my family suffer,” he said over the phone from a labour camp in Qatar. “What can I do? Who will look after my family if I don’t earn money?”

Over and over, in reporting these stories for openDemocracy I heard migrant workers describe their job overseas as something they are compelled to do. Yet almost in the same breath, they also said they wanted to continue working abroad for their livelihood. It’s an unresolvable, unavoidable dilemma that many migrant workers face. And it means that, even though many workers still in Qatar despise their work there, they are fearful of losing it. And they are wondering where they will go next.

The names of the workers have been changed.

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