Dreams of wealth turn to dust for Qatari migrant workers

Dreams of wealth turn to dust for Qatari migrant workers
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Hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to Qatar in recent years to work on giant construction projects as it ramped up its infrastructure ahead of the World Cup.

Lured by the prospect of earning more money than they could expect 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 nations, including Kenya and Uganda.

The Gulf state has faced harsh criticism over 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 out hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for lost wages and injuries.

Rights groups have said the changes were too small, too late.

Ahead of the world’s largest single-sport tournament, AFP spoke to migrant workers in India, Bangladesh and the Philippines, as well as their families, about their experiences.

These are their stories:

-The grieving son-

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

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

“The day my father died, his chest pain started when 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, his voice cracking.

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

His father, a driver, “went to work at 3:00 am and returned at 11:00 pm,” he said.

They were among six or 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 extreme weather conditions and the food we received was not good.”

The duo went to the Gulf State in hopes of building a better life for themselves.

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

With only a month’s salary as compensation from the company, an 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 bring in the remains of relatives who have died in the Gulf countries, but now he is looking to return to earn enough money to finish the house.

“We are of 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 let us down.”

-The debtor-

The gleaming marble of Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium, which will host eight World Cup matches, was installed in part by Bangladeshi bricklayer Aupon Mir.

But he returned home after four years in Qatar with nothing to show for his efforts after being stripped of his salary, he told AFP.

“What a beautiful stadium it is! It’s unbelievably beautiful,” he said.

“But the sad part is, even being part of this beautiful gigantic construction, we didn’t get paid. My foreman took our time sheets and withdrew all our money and ran.”

Mir left his home in Sreepur, in rural western Bangladesh, for Qatar in 2016, hoping to earn enough money to transform his life.

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

He worked for an Indian construction company on 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 and change my destiny,” said the 33-year-old.

“I came home with 25 riyals ($8). This is what Qatar has contributed in my life,” the father of two said outside his home and tea room.

“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 racked up a lot of debt and now I’m carrying the burden.”

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

She would go days without eating when she had no money, and sometimes she would sleep on the beach when she couldn’t pay the rent.

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

“Blood has turned to sweat on our bodies to build the stadiums. But only to be kicked out without money or honor.”

-The builder-

Workers who flock to Qatar and other Gulf countries do so in the hope of earning far more money than they could expect back home. For some, those dreams come true.

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

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

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

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

A contractor stole part of his salary, but Qatari authorities continue to praise the 32-year-old.

He returned last month to the central Bangladeshi city of Sadarpur, where he was raised by a single mother in abject poverty.

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

A staunch supporter of Argentina, he would like to be able to watch a match 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 see a game there,” he said, adding that he hopes to work another 10 years in Qatar.

“They treated me well,” he said.

-The blind-

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 that it was well lit. I couldn’t believe I lost my sight.

“I had no idea how four months went by and how it all happened.”

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

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

Most of the time, Sheikh sits quietly in the front yard of his house. Some days his son takes him to the nearby bazaar or tea stall in the late afternoon, 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 because I’m worried about the future of my family, my son and my wife.”

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

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

-Hungry and nostalgic-

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

Cario, who spent six years in Qatar, said it was a common tactic among Filipino immigrants struggling to survive.

Hungry workers would show outdated documents to the Qatari police, who would lock them up for a night, feed them, and then let them go.

“There was a lot of food in the facility,” Cario, 49, told AFP.

“When we were released and returned to our accommodation, our stomachs were full.”

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

It has installed glass and aluminum panels at various construction projects, including the 80,000-seat Lusail Stadium near Doha, where the final will take place on December 18.

The monthly pay in Qatar was more than his basic salary as a salesperson for Nestlé products in the Philippines, and it increased the longer he was there.

He transferred most of it to his family in the central province of Negros Occidental.

But there were times when his salary fell behind for months and he was forced to borrow money from friends, family, or loan sharks.

In early 2018, Cario’s pay came to a sudden stop again. He kept working, oblivious to the fact that his employer had filed for bankruptcy.

After three months, Carlo managed to get compensation from the Qatari Ministry of Labor and flew home.

In the six years he was away, Cario said he saw his two sons once. Despite feeling homesick, 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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