Qatar, which hosts the 2022 World Cup, has become known as one of the richest countries in the world, but little is said about poverty in this tiny Middle Eastern nation.
This is experienced by foreigners, who make up 90% of its population.
In 1971, when it gained independence from the United Kingdom, Qatar had a GDP (Gross Domestic Product, sum of goods and services of a country) of about US$ 400 million. Today, its economy is around US$ 180 billion, that is, an increase of 45,000%.
This was mainly due to the discovery of oil and natural gas —together, these two raw materials account for more than half of the country’s revenue.
With so much money, the small nation attracted an extraordinary number of migrants and was able to invest massively in infrastructure, with sumptuous constructions in the middle of the desert climate.
It also virtually “eliminated” poverty—at least, according to official statistics.
But in fact, these data mask a deep problem in Qatari society.
Qatar today has around three million inhabitants. But of that total, only 350,000 (about 10% of the population) are Qataris — the rest are foreigners.
However, natives and foreigners living in Qatar are not treated equally in the eyes of the State.
Anyone who is a citizen of the country is entitled to a series of social benefits, such as free access to the health system, housing allowance and transport allowance.
It is not surprising, therefore, that in this group there are no poor people.
And, as official statistics are usually based only on the income of Qataris, the image of a country free from poverty has traveled around the world.
But this is just an illusion.
Foreigners, who make up the vast majority of the population, many of whom are from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, live another reality.
These migrants, who left their home countries to escape poverty and achieve financial stability for themselves and their families, have to accept much lower wages and precarious working conditions.
Thousands of foreign workers have died, for example, in the construction of stadiums and infrastructure since the country was chosen to host the World Cup.
To give you an idea, a migrant construction worker earns around US$2,000 a year. Qatari citizens, on the other hand, earn an average salary of around US$700,000 a year.
Under the law, foreigners are not treated equally with natives.
Until recently, the kafala (sponsorship system in Arabic) was in force, whereby migrant workers could not leave the country or change jobs without the employer’s permission.
If they changed jobs without this authorization, they faced criminal charges of “escape”, which could lead to arrest, detention and deportation.
Employers in Qatar were also known to confiscate employees’ passports, keeping them in the country indefinitely and sparking many allegations of forced labor.
In December 2016, Qatar passed a law that allowed workers who had completed their contracts to change jobs freely and imposed fines on companies that confiscated employees’ passports.
But retaining the document was still legally possible if there was written consent — a reality for many workers.
Another hurdle for nearly all migrants in Qatar involved the initial recruitment costs that workers typically paid recruiters before moving to the country.
It was customary to pay a substantial sum, ranging from US$500 to US$3,500, before leaving their home countries to take up employment.
This meant, in practice, that the vast majority of these migrants had to take out loans at varying interest rates to pay these recruitment costs, leaving them in an even more vulnerable position.
It is important to remember that, unlike Brazil, where it is enough to be born in the national territory to be a Brazilian citizen, only those who have a Qatari father are a Qatari. If the mother is Qatari and the father is foreign, the child does not have Qatari nationality.
It is therefore unlikely to obtain citizenship in the country as a foreigner —this is legally possible, but depends on a series of requirements, including continuous legal residence for 25 years, having excellent “reputation and character” and working knowledge of the Arabic language, among others.
Finally, in 2020, under international pressure and threatened with losing the right to host the World Cup, Qatar became the first Arab country to abolish the kafala system, allowing migrant workers to change jobs without their employer’s permission.
It also established a minimum wage for all workers regardless of nationality, the second nation in the Arab world to do so, after Kuwait.
The changes also involved migrant workers excluded from labor law protections, such as domestic workers.
However, other legal provisions that facilitate the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers remain.
According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, “migrant workers —and their dependents— must still rely on their employers to facilitate their entry, residence and employment in the country, which means that employers are responsible for applying for, renewing and canceling their work permits. residence and work”.
“Workers can be left without documents through no fault of their own when employers fail to carry out such processes, and it is they, not their employers, who suffer the consequences,” HRW said in a report published in 2020.
“Qatar continues to impose severe penalties for ‘escape’ — when a migrant worker leaves his employer without permission or remains in the country beyond the permitted grace period after his residence permit expires or is revoked. Penalties include fines, detention, deportation and re-entry ban,” he added.
Last year, HRW pointed out that foreign workers still suffer from “punitive and illegal wage deductions” and face “months of unpaid wages for long hours of grueling work”.
And, according to the NGO Amnesty International, companies still pressure workers to prevent them from changing employers.
A spokesman for the Qatari government told the BBC that the reforms implemented by the country are improving working conditions for most foreign workers.
“Significant progress has been made to ensure that the reforms are effectively implemented,” the spokesperson said.
“The number of companies breaking the rules will continue to decline as enforcement measures are implemented,” he added.
For the World Cup, Qatar built seven stadiums, as well as a new airport, metro system, a series of roads and around 100 new hotels.
An entire city was built around the stadium that will host the final match.
The Qatari government says 30,000 foreign workers were hired just to build the stadiums. Most come from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and the Philippines.
According to the British newspaper The Guardian, 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since the country was chosen to host the World Cup.
This number is based on data provided by countries’ embassies in Qatar.
However, the Qatari government has said this figure is misleading because not all recorded deaths were of people working on World Cup-related projects.
He added that many of those who died had worked in Qatar for several years and may have died of old age or other natural causes.
The Qatari government said its accident records showed that between 2014 and 2020, there were 37 worker deaths on the construction works for World Cup stadiums, only three of which were “work-related”.
However, the International Labor Organization (ILO) says that number is an underestimate. Qatar does not count deaths from heart attacks and respiratory failure as work-related – although these are common symptoms of heatstroke, caused by heavy work in very high temperatures.
The organization compiled its own figures for World Cup-related incidents collected from public hospitals and ambulance services in Qatar.
According to the ILO, 50 foreign workers died and more than 500 were seriously injured in 2021 alone, while another 37,600 suffered minor to moderate injuries.
The BBC Arabic service has also gathered evidence that the Qatari government has underestimated deaths among foreign workers.
– This text was published in https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-63761022
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