This World Cup is about more than just football. I’ve seen the human cost | World Cup 2022

aIn a corner of my office is a huge pile of external hard drives. They have a story, gigabyte after gigabyte, of nearly a decade reporting on the lives of Nepali migrant workers in the World Cup host nation, Qatar.

In one, I recently found a photo taken in July 2013 of Tilak Peshwakarma holding a photo of his son, Ganesh. When he left his home for Qatar, Ganesh was a teenager hoping to earn some money to support his poor family. Two months later his body was taken home in a coffin.

She opened another photo, showing a torn piece of paper, listing the names of 22 other Nepalese workers who died in Qatar in July of that year. Next to each name written cause of death: electric shock, fall, traffic accident. On July 17, the name Ganesha came. Cause of death: heart attack.

Ganesh’s short life formed part of a major investigation into the treatment of Qatar’s huge, low-paid migrant workforce (nearly 90% of the country’s population are migrant workers). It revealed a horrific catalog of abuses—crowded, squalid accommodations, confiscation of passports, non-payment of wages—which in some cases may amount to forced labour, a modern form of slavery.

When the Guardian published its exclusive story in September 2013 after seeing the coffins of Nepalese workers returning from the Gulf, it made headlines around the world. Football was literally a matter of life and death. There was something deeply offensive about exploiting some of the world’s poorest people in the name of a sports festival.

FIFA immediately said it was “extremely concerned”, although it was clearly not concerned enough to do its due diligence. The next day, the organizers of the World Cup in Qatar sent a letter to the governing body of the game, in which they confirmed that they viewed the findings of the Guardian with “the utmost seriousness.” He attached to the letter a one-page “workers’ charter” outlining, in structured form, their commitment to workers’ rights.

A protester holds a banner criticizing Qatar's policies regarding working conditions for migrant workers before a friendly meeting between Scotland and Qatar in Edinburgh.
A protester holds a banner criticizing Qatar’s policies regarding working conditions for migrant workers before a friendly meeting between Scotland and Qatar in Edinburgh. Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Over the next nine years, this commitment will be relentlessly tested and challenged by Guardian reporting. (If you appreciate our relentless pursuit of justice, safety, and fairness, please consider supporting our journalism today.)

We’ve exposed how workers from North Korea were building a tower – now a luxury hotel booked by soccer fans – under conditions that likely constitute slave labour.

We documented the poverty wages paid to the men who build the new stadiums. In 2014 someone told us they were being paid 45p an hour overtime. Four years later another said his basic wage was 60p an hour – 10,000 times less than Lionel Messi’s declared earnings.

We revealed that thousands of workers from South Asia have died in Qatar in the decade since it won the right to host the World Cup, many of them from sudden and unexplained causes. Qatari authorities have done little to investigate these deaths, and countless families of the deceased have not received compensation from their employers.

Construction workers at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha in 2015.
Construction workers at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha in 2015. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images

Last year we found workers working in luxury, FIFA-approved hotels trapped by recruitment debt and rogue employers, earning less in a month than the cost of a standard room for one night.

And in September we revealed that some workers on World Cup stadiums were living in squalid, windowless huts on the edge of the desert.

Low-paid migrant workers face a stark choice: stay home and suffer, or take a risk and go abroad. For some, the adventure pays off—money is sent home, homes are rebuilt and kids are sent to school—but for many, it’s a bet they’re losing.

Reporting from Qatar is not easy, but the only way to really tell this story is to be on the ground, feel the sweltering heat, see the overcrowded labor camps and listen. This is the hardest part. People are afraid to speak up, because no matter how difficult their circumstances, they need to act, so why should we put that at risk when speaking to a journalist?

Before each trip, I agree to protocols with my editor in case I’m detained (as have a number of journalists). Once in Qatar, I constantly look over my shoulder, both figuratively and literally. Interviews take place at night, standing on a quiet street or in the back of a nondescript restaurant. But by working independently and undercover, we were able to uncover what they were hoping to hide.

A room in the camp houses workers who work in a number of World Cup stadiums in Qatar.
A room in the camp houses workers who work in a number of World Cup stadiums in Qatar. Photography: Pete Pattison/The Guardian

So with the World Cup under way, if you value reading about the events in the stadiums, but also about the people who built them, please consider supporting a news organization determined to expose the truth behind the great public relations of Big Football and the Gulf Petrocrats. You can fund our work today from just £1. If you can, please consider offering more each month or year.

makes a difference. The cumulative pressure of our reporting, combined with the work of human rights groups and labor unions, has forced the Qatari authorities to introduce a number of overdue new laws that have the potential to make real change for low-wage workers.

The abusive kafala system, under which workers could not change jobs without their employer’s permission – on paper – was abolished and a minimum wage introduced.

Reforms have not gone far enough and have not been rigorously implemented. But that is why this work is so important. When the Qatari authorities and FIFA make exaggerated claims about what they have achieved, we will challenge them.

Our reporters know it’s about more than what happens on the pitch.

Support the Guardian’s vital and investigative journalism today.

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