They’re impossible to miss. On a drive around Qatar, at every turn, it seems, a new football stadium rises out of the desert – each design offering a futuristic take on its traditional culture.
One of them, located in an area that was long known for pearl diving and fishing, is shaped like a dhow boat, a traditional vessel that ply Gulf waters.
Another is designed like a woven hat known as a “gahfiya,” mostly worn by men in Gulf countries as a base for their traditional white headscarves. Each stadium design represents Qatar’s history and culture and are testaments to its future ambitions on the world stage.
But each has been built with the help of an army of workers coming from abroad, many of whom hail from South Asia and parts of Africa. And the small Gulf country has gone on a media offensive following several reports alleging egregious mistreatment and abuse.
Most of the workers, the authors alleged, were involved in low-wage, dangerous labor, often done in extreme heat.
The Guardian report did not definitively link all 6,500 deaths to World Cup infrastructure projects. Though one expert told the British paper it was “likely many workers who have died were employed” on those projects.
CNN has not independently verified The Guardian’s figures.
Qatar World Cup officials estimate a very different death toll, saying there have been just three work-related deaths on stadiums and 35 non-work-related deaths.
Hassan Al Thawadi – the man in charge of leading the event’s preparations – told CNN’s Becky Anderson that The Guardian’s 6,500 figure was “inherently misleading” and lacking context.
“When a sensational headline comes out such as that, I understand people’s concerns,” he said. “As human beings, we all have a responsibility to be concerned about such matters, I’m fully on board with that. But I think it’s also very important to find out the facts on the ground.”
He said some of the people were doctors and teachers that died from either natural causes or illnesses, not from working on World Cup stadiums.
The authors of The Guardian report, however, argued that there’s little medical explanation for the causes of these deaths which is largely due to a lack of transparency from Qatar’s government.
As Qatar does not routinely perform autopsies, it is hard to verify.
In a statement to CNN, FIFA – the body that organizes every World Cup – concurred with Qatar’s death toll.
“FIFA and the Qatari Supreme Committee (SC) have always maintained transparency around these fatalities,” it said, adding that the Supreme Committee investigates every work-related incident.
“With the very stringent health and safety measures on site enforced by the SC, the frequency of accidents on FIFA World Cup construction sites has been low when compared to other major construction projects around the world.”
It added, though that, “it remains a challenge to fully safeguard workers from health hazards that may not be directly associated with their work on site.”
When asked whether he believes Qatari authorities need to do more to investigate workers’ deaths, Al Thawadi told CNN the government is “in discussions to review its overall mortality rates.”
“I think the State of Qatar has continuously showcased its commitment to transparency,” he said. “The simple fact that human rights organizations can come over here, perform their research and issue their reports from the State of Qatar, I think is a testimony towards our commitment.”
Amnesty International confirmed this in a statement to CNN, saying, “Unlike most Gulf countries, Qatar allows access to Amnesty International to visit the country and meet officials to raise our concerns.” However, the organization has not launched a report from inside the country since 2013.
It added, “It is not always easy to gain access to migrant workers and work sites. Many of them fear facing repercussions for talking to international organizations.”
‘Particularly grievous in the Gulf’
Over the past 10 years, it’s not just the deaths alleged to be associated with the 2022 World Cup that have put Qatar under an unforgiving spotlight.
Several human rights organizations allege that thousands of workers involved in stadium construction and infrastructure projects have been subjected to labor exploitation and human rights violations.
Since 2010, migrant workers have faced delayed or unpaid wages, forced labor, long hours in hot weather, employer intimidation and an inability to leave their jobs because of the country’s sponsorship system, human rights organizations have found.
Barun Ghimire is a human rights lawyer based in Kathmandu, whose Nepal work primarily focuses on the exploitation of Nepalese migrants working abroad.
Labor migration from Nepal is deeply concentrated in Gulf countries, Qatar encompassing the highest percentage in 2018 and 2019. And in Qatar, Nepalis are the second largest ethnic group of migrant workers, after Indians.
Ghimire told CNN the plight of Nepalese labor workers is “particularly grievous in the Gulf.”
He has been documenting migrant worker abuse in Qatar long before it won the rights to host the World Cup. But in the 10 years since, he says he has received a “significantly high chunk” of complaints from Nepalese workers living there.
“Every other day, you would hear a story.”
Most migrant workers, he added, come from poverty, and aren’t well educated, making them vulnerable and easy targets for exploitation.
Ghimire recounts setting up crowdfunding campaigns to help workers fly back to Nepal, because they never received their salaries.
“Migrant workers from the poorest of countries go to Qatar seeking employment,” he said. “But when they get there, there’s this tragic event that happens that’s like the case of blood diamonds. The Qatar World Cup is really the bloody cup – the blood of migrant workers.”
The blame shouldn’t only be laid on Qatar though, he stressed, adding that the Nepalese government and other countries should held accountable for not providing workers with proper protection in their destination countries.
Maheshwor Nepal is a former Nepalese migrant worker who worked for Qatar Airways’ customer service department for eight years.
He told CNN that although he never experienced maltreatment and was not directly involved with World Cup infrastructure, he did witness it happen to other workers, especially on stadiums.
When Qatar won the rights to host the event, Nepal said it was seen as a great opportunity for young people from developing countries to explore overseas job opportunities. But most of them were promised “unmet dreams” by both their home and destination countries, he said.
“The blood and sweat of Nepalis have been mixed in every development project in Qatar,” he said.
He took multiple trips, as a self-funded researcher to Qatar’s industrial zones where most migrant workers live, and saw what he described as “deplorable” conditions.
Labor accommodation camps built specifically for migrant workers dot the landscape around Qatar’s capital of Doha. Human rights organizations have repeatedly slammed the camps for being overcrowded, unsanitary, and lacking adequate water and electricity.
Nepal recalls walking into an unhygienic kitchen tucked away in the corner of a crammed labor camp, shared by dozens of workers. It was their responsibility to clean their own rooms every day, he said, even after working an exorbitant number of hours in the heat.
No one ever did, Nepal said, and so they were forced to live in filth.
‘Structural racial discrimination against non-nationals’
More than two million people make up Qatar’s migrant labor force, which comprises 95% of all workers in the country.
The proportion of migrant workers in the Middle East, especially in Gulf states, is amongst the highest in the world, the International Labour Organization (ILO) found.
Most work in low-skilled labor sectors, such as construction and hospitality, making them vital to their host countries’ economic growth and development.
The division of labor, however, is incredibly unjust.
A 2020 United Nations report found “serious concerns of structural racial discrimination against non-nationals” in Qatar, specifically those hailing from South Asian and sub-Saharan African countries.
“For many in Qatar, national origin and nationality determines the extent of their enjoyment of their human rights,” the report stated.
The report followed a UN special rapporteur’s visit to Qatar in 2019, where she documented a “de facto caste system” based on national origin.
Qatar World Cup 2022
She found that those with Western or Arab passports receive better contractual benefits than those with certain South Asian and sub-Saharan African nationalities, even if they work the same jobs.
She raised concerns that Qatar’s labor laws result in “immense power imbalances between employers and migrant workers.” The special rapporteur noted a “climate of fear” among migrants, worried about retaliation, that prevented them from raising complaints against their employers for labor violations.
Since the UN report was published, Qatar has deployed a few policies to reform the labor structure, all of which stem from an agreement to help protect workers’ rights signed in 2017 between the Qatari government and the ILO, a United Nations agency.
“Nobody denies that more work needs to be done,” Al Thawadi said. But he claims “the commitment that the state has shown and has made early on to deliver upon those promises” is clear.
Under the agreement with the ILO, the Gulf state’s sponsorship system, known as the kafala, was dismantled last year. This in part allows migrant workers to change their jobs before the end of their contracts without requiring consent from their employers.
Qatar also introduced a non-discriminatory minimum wage of $275 per month that applies to both migrant labor workers as well as domestic workers, that it claims is the first of its kind in the region.
The average income for Qatari households, however, is reportedly more than 11 times higher.
When migrant workers seek employment abroad, they are often required to pay high recruitment fees to agencies in their home countries. These fees can be substantial, leaving them in vulnerable situations, often with heavy debt to pay off.
To aid migrant workers facing debt from these fees, Al Thawadi detailed an initiative that works with contractors to ensure recruitment fees are reimbursed to workers, and he says proof of payment is not required.
“Recruitment fees here, like anywhere else in the world are illegal, but the burden of proof is on the worker. What we’ve been able to do is flip that burden of proof.”
In the past five years, contractors working for the Supreme Committee have voluntarily committed close to $33 million in reimbursements to about 48,000 workers, he told CNN. Of that total, around 18,000 do not work on World Cup sites but have still benefited, Al Thawadi said.
“There is a steadfast commitment to ensure people’s rights are protected,” he said.
Earlier this month, the US State Department recognized a Qatari official for “his leadership in spurring reforms to the sponsorship system and addressing labor abuses in Qatar.”
However, Fabien Goa, a research manager at the non-profit human rights organization FairSquare Projects, doesn’t believe it’s quite so clear cut. Goa, who has over a decade of human rights experience, previously advised on sports and labor rights at Amnesty International, focusing on the Qatar 2022 World Cup.
Speaking to CNN, Goa applauded Qatar’s recent steps and said that dismantling the kafala system was “the most significant reform” Qatar has taken – but that it came too late.
“Qatar was awarded the World Cup in 2010. The law wasn’t implemented until 2020,” when most of the World Cup infrastructure was already completed, Goa said. “It’s a shame.’
He also said that while dismantling the kafala system was a positive step, many loopholes remain, such as “absconding charges,” which employers in Gulf states can file against employees who don’t show up for work.
These charges can lead to migrant workers being arrested and deported, and human rights organizations allege employers abuse this power to control workers.
“Migrant workers still aren’t empowered. The level of control still exists. If they’re unfortunate enough to have abusive sponsors, then they could leverage that power against them.”
International organizations and workers’ rights groups have also applauded the reforms, but, echoing Goa, insist more work needs to be done.
In March, Amnesty International called on FIFA to ensure migrant workers’ rights in Qatar are fully protected before the World Cup starts.
In a statement to CNN, Amnesty acknowledges the changes Qatar has introduced, but said, “The weak implementation and enforcement of these reforms has left thousands of workers at the mercy of unscrupulous employers who have been allowed to commit abuses with impunity.”
“Despite improvements to the legal framework, progress on the ground remains slow,” it added.
The CEO of Qatar’s World Cup, Nasser Al Khater, told CNN that migrant worker reforms take time and can’t happen all at once.
“It’s a change of culture, it’s a change of behavior,” he said. “We’d be lying to ourselves, and fooling ourselves, if from one year to the next you can make those changes and think that everything’s going to be solved.”
However, Goa argues Qatar had plenty of time to make those changes, but instead there have been a lot of “false promises” over the years.
“If we look at the reform through the lens of the migrants, it has been slow,” Goa said. “The urgency has been lacking.
“It would be a disservice to the migrants that have endured significant suffering during this reform period for this to be painted as a consistent linear progress effort.”
Ghimire, whose job as a human rights lawyer is to get justice for the suffering, agrees with that assessment.
“While there have been reforms here and there, when it comes to implementation, it’s not how it’s been advertised,” he said. “Most workers don’t even know the reforms exist, while others say they’re just there for show.”
Qatar has staked its prestige on the 2022 World Cup, promising to address the migrant crisis and help exploited workers. But all eyes will be on the country as it simultaneously recovers from a twofold challenge: a regional diplomatic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The same year the Gulf state had signed its agreement with the ILO in 2017, it faced an unprecedented diplomatic crisis, which it only recently resolved.
In the summer, a group of countries – some of which had been its closest allies – cut diplomatic ties and launched a blockade on Qatar, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with whom Qatar shares its only land border.
The group alleged that Qatar supported terrorism and destabilized the region, claims Doha has always maintained are “baseless.”
The initial shock was acute and immediate. Qatar imports nearly 90% of its food so it was put in a precarious position just to feed its people. All while trying to plan for one of the largest sporting events in the world.
The blockade also had a disproportionate effect on migrant laborers, who make up most of the Qatari workforce. At the time, under the kafala system, migrant workers needed employer permission in order to get visas or leave the country.
Qatar had to quickly develop systems, policies, and supply chain networks to ensure the country could keep functioning, Al Thawadi said.
The lessons that it learned during that period were useful when the Covid-19 pandemic struck last year.
“We always looked at obstacles and challenges as opportunities to grow and evolve. We became a very self-sufficient nation, which in the end became a blessing in disguise when the entire world shut down as a result of Covid,” Al Thawadi said.
When Covid-19 began spreading, Qatar was not spared from the impact. Its migrant labor camps were at an especially high risk for Covid-19 exposure, due to unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, human rights groups found.
Amid a spike in cases, it implemented strict restrictions to lower case numbers, which eventually proved fruitful. The country is now slowly reopening again, with over half of the population fully vaccinated.
As more variants continue to spread around the world, the effects of Covid-19 will likely still be felt in 2022. And for a spectacle like the World Cup, where millions of fans are expected to attend, its organizers acknowledge the challenges.
Al Khater assured CNN’s Becky Anderson that Qatar has hosted “more than 100 tournaments and matches since September,” such as the Asian Champions League, which has helped prepare them for future obstacles.
In these matches, they’ve seen the gradual return of fans to stadiums at a reduced 30% capacity, as well as building bio-secure bubbles for players and testing all the fans who attended.
“I’m hopeful that by 2022, we will be the first event that, not only will bring people from different backgrounds, from different societies and different walks of life to celebrate what is the greatest event in the world,” Al Thawadi said, “But I think, more importantly, we’ll be celebrating the entire globe coming together overcoming this pandemic.”
The hardest part of any marathon can often be the final stretch to the finish line.
The CEO tells CNN that Qatar has had a tough road since beginning the race, and it’s only getting more brutal.
“There’s always criticism that takes place with any World Cup. I’m not going to say this is unique to Qatar, but I think what is unique is just the ferociousness of the criticism. Regardless, we will be ready, and it will definitely be a great World Cup.” Al Khater said.
As the date closes in, Al Thawadi says the event that he’s been planning for over the past 10 years is “between 90 and 95% completed.”
That is startling progress compared to previous World Cups, where often host countries struggled to get everything completed on time.
Four of Qatar’s stadiums have been finished and inaugurated, one is close to being handed over and three others are at various stages of completion.
Al Thawadi assures that “by the end of this year, or early next year at the latest, all stadia will be completed.”
CNN spoke to Al Thawadi in Al-Bayt stadium – which means “home” in Arabic, so perhaps it is apt that it plays host to the opening match of the tournament. In its aim to reflect the country’s heritage, the stadium is shaped like a tent: a nod to Qatar’s Bedouin traditions – nomadic and welcoming.
“The idea is that the world will come and be in stadiums that not only are state-of-the-art in terms of technology and sustainability … but they are also a faithful reflection of our culture and heritage.” Al Thawadi said.
The story of this World Cup is in many ways the story of Al Thawadi and Al Khater, who have been responsible for bringing the tournament to fruition.
As much as they acknowledge the criticisms of their labor structure, their main intention is that the event will be a catalyst of change for the region and a vehicle of progress.
Asked what he’s most excited about, Al Khater said it’s the people.
“Receiving the fans, seeing the joy on their faces, knowing that the country’s proud.”
For Al Thawadi, he says he still feels a little apprehension and stress, but ultimately, he feels proud of the journey so far and of its significance to the region
“The entire Arab world is excited about this tournament. It’s their tournament. It’s our tournament. It’s an opportunity for the world to see us for who we are: a hospitable, friendly, sports-crazy nation.”
It is who Qatar is, the character of its nation, that’s so critical here. As far as it has come, it will take significant progress to shape the destiny of its World Cup and – moving forward – of the country itself.
Mohammed Al-Saiegh, Hannah Ritchie, Saffeya Ahmed and Isis Amusa contributed to this report.