Dreams of wealth turn to dust for migrant workers in Qatar

Hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to Qatar in recent years to work on huge construction projects as it boosted its infrastructure ahead of the World Cup.

Drawn by the prospect of earning more than they could ever hope to earn at home, immigrants make up nearly 90 percent of Qatar’s population of 2.8 million.

Most come from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines. Others come from African countries including Kenya and Uganda.

The Gulf state has come under fire for the deaths, injuries and unpaid wages of foreign workers.

Qatar has introduced major reforms to improve worker safety and punish employers who break the rules.

It has also paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for lost wages and injuries.

Human rights groups have said the changes were too little, too late.

Ahead of the individual sports world championships, AFP spoke to migrant workers in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines, as well as their families, about their experiences.

Here are their stories:

– The Grieving Son –

Migrant work is often a family affair, and Sravan Kalladi and his father Ramesh both worked for the same company building roads leading to World Cup stadiums.

But only Sravan returned home to India. After another long shift, his 50-year-old father collapsed and died in the camp where they lived.

“The day my father died, his chest pains started while he was working,” Kalladi said.

“We took him to the hospital… I told the doctors to try again and again to revive him,” the 29-year-old said in his voiceover.

Working conditions were “not good at all,” he said, describing long hours and underpaid overtime.

His father, a driver, “used to go to work at 3:00 a.m. and come back at 11:00 p.m.,” he said.

They were among six to eight people living in a room in the camp where “even four people couldn’t sit properly if they wanted to,” he added.

“We had to work in very bad weather and the food we got was not good.

The duo went to the Gulf state hoping to build a better life for themselves.

But after taking his father’s body home to the southern Indian state of Telangana, Kalladi never returned to Qatar.

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With only a month’s salary in compensation from the company, the unfinished house now stands as a stark reminder of the family’s unfulfilled dreams and crippled finances.

In the six years since, Kalladi has helped other families repatriate the remains of relatives who have died in the Gulf countries – but he is now looking to return to make enough money to finish the house.

“We are the company when we are alive but not when we are dead,” he said. “We trusted them and that’s why we left our homes and went to work for them and they betrayed us.”

– The debtor –

The glittering marble of Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium, which will host eight World Cup matches, was partially installed by Bangladeshi mason Aupon Mir.

But he returned home after four years in Qatar with no evidence of his efforts after being stripped of his salary, he told AFP.

“What a beautiful stadium this is!” It’s incredibly beautiful,” he said.

“But the sad thing is that even being a part of this huge beautiful building we didn’t get paid. My foreman took our time sheets and took all our money and fled.

Mir left his home in Sreepur in rural western Bangladesh and went to Qatar in 2016 hoping to earn enough to change his life.

He paid for the trip with his savings and loans from his father and other relatives.

He worked for an Indian construction company at seven of the World Cup stadiums, but because he did not have a valid work permit, he was arrested in 2020 and deported.

“I spent almost 700,000 taka ($7,000) to go to Qatar to change my destiny,” said the 33-year-old.

“I returned home with 25 rials ($8). This is how Qatar has contributed in my life,” said the father of two in front of his home and tea shop.

“I dream of building a better house, living a better life, sending my children to better schools. But none of those hopes came true. I just accumulated a pile of debt and now carry the burden.

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Mir said he would wake up early to take the bus to his construction site and then work for 10 hours in the scorching heat.

He went days without food when he had no money and sometimes slept on the beach when he couldn’t pay his rent.

“We sweat from head to toe every day at work,” he said.

“Blood has turned into sweat in our bodies to build the stadiums.” But only for us to be driven out without money and honor.”

– Builder –

The workers who flock to Qatar and other Gulf states do so in hopes of making far more money than they could ever aspire to in their home countries. For some, these dreams do come true.

Abu Yusuf – who asked that his real name not be used as he plans to return to the World Cup next month – paid 680,000 Bangladeshi taka for his trip to Qatar.

There he worked as a driver, construction worker and welder, including several months at a fire station inside a stadium.

He earned about $700 a month and was “more than happy” with his salary, he said.

“They are good people. Many Qataris helped me.”

One contractor stole some of his wages, but the 32-year-old still promised the Qatari authorities.

He returned last month to the town of Sadarpur in central Bangladesh, where he grew up with a single mother in extreme poverty.

Now he is building a two-story home and has bought a fancy new motorcycle with his earnings in Qatar, while also covering the expenses of seven people, including his mother and the family of his blind brother.

He is a die-hard Argentina supporter and wished he could watch a game at the Al-Bayt Stadium where he worked as a welder.

“It’s a beautiful stadium. I was proud to be among the workers who built the stadium. I wish I could watch a game there,” he said, adding that he hopes to work for another 10 years in Qatar.

“I was treated well,” he said.

– the blind man –

At a construction site near Doha, Bangladeshi worker Babu Sheikh fell four meters (14 feet) to the ground and fractured his skull.

He spent four months in a coma in the hospital. When he came to, he was blind.

“When I regained consciousness, I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “I asked my brother if the place was dark. He told me it was well informed. I couldn’t believe I lost my sight.

“I had no idea how four months passed and how it all happened.

It was 18 months before he was able to leave the hospital, with bills paid by his family.

Qatari authorities prosecuted his employer, but the case was dismissed and he never received any compensation, he said.

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Most of the time Sheikh sits quietly in the front yard of his home. Some days his son takes him to the nearby bazaars or to the afternoon tea shop where he chats with his childhood friends.

“I don’t want to live like this,” he said. “I want to work. I can’t sleep all night worrying about the future of my family, my son and my wife.”

The boy, now five, was born while he was in Qatar and Sheikh has never seen him.

“All I want is my sight back.” I want to see my son. Does he have my complexion? Does he look like me?

– Hungry and homesick –

When Filipino construction worker Jovanie Cario’s employer stopped paying him in 2018, he was deliberately arrested so he could eat free meals in prison.

Cario, who spent six years in Qatar, said this is a common practice among Filipino migrants struggling to survive.

Hungry workers would show outdated documents to the Qatari police, who would lock them up overnight, feed them and then release them.

“The facility had so much food,” Cario, 49, told AFP.

“When we were dropped off and returned to our accommodation, our stomachs were full.

Cario arrived in Qatar in 2012, two years after the country was named as the host of the World Cup.

He installed glass and aluminum panels on several construction projects, including the 80,000-capacity Lusail Stadium near Doha, where the final will be held on 18 December.

The monthly salary in Qatar was higher than his basic salary as a Nestle product salesman in the Philippines – and it increased the longer he was there.

He sent most of it back to his family in the central region of Negros Occidental.

But there were times when his salary was delayed for months and he was forced to borrow money from friends, relatives or moneylenders.

At the beginning of 2018, Cario’s salary suddenly stopped again. He continued to work, unaware that his employer had gone bankrupt.

After three months, Cario managed to get compensation from Qatar’s Ministry of Labor and he flew home.

During the six years he was away, Cario said he saw his two children once. Despite his homesickness, he wanted to save more money before returning to the Philippines.

“The body longs to go home, but the pocket is not deep enough,” he said.

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