In April 2016, Jaleshwar Prasad, a 48-year-old Indian construction worker died of a heart attack at a construction site for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. In response to a Human Rights Watch query on the incident, the government office organizing the 2022 Football World Cup, stated that Prasad had fallen ill at the worksite that morning and died later that day due to cardiac arrest. It added that an investigation into Prasad's death claimed that âwork duties were not a contributory factor," but did not explain who carried out this investigation, or how it arrived at this dubious conclusion.
Jaleshwar Prasad is not alone. Many Indian citizens work in similar abusive and life-threatening conditions at construction sites across Qatar. Official data released by the Embassy of India in Doha shows that 761 Indian workers died in Qatar between January 2014 and September 2016. However, the Qatari government continues to be non-transparent and refuses to reveal the cause of death in most of these cases.
Three years from November, the World Cup will open in Qatar, with a high cost in Indian lives.
The issue of non-compliance with labour rights in Qatar has been long-standing and well documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The Qatari government has not done enough to monitor and curb abusive practices and hold employers accountable.
A 2014 report that the Qatari government commissioned from the international law firm DLA Piper noted that Qatar attributed a âseeminglyâ high number of worker deaths to cardiac arrest, a general term that does not specify the cause of death. The authorities have ignored key recommendations of its own report commissioned from DLA Piper. The present Qatar law doesn't mandate autopsies or post-mortem examinations in cases of so-called âsudden deathsâ.
The Qatari government hasnât implemented the recommendation of the report to reform this law which mandates autopsies for identifying the cause of death of these workers. Qatari authorities have not commissioned an independent study into the âseeminglyâ high number of fatalities attributed to cardiac arrest. Despite assurances of reforms from the Qatari Government, not much has changed on the ground. A Nepali worker fell to his death in August 2018 on the âEducation Cityâ stadium.
Unsafe working conditions are only one of the numerous challenges for these migrant workers in Qatar. Other challenges include low wages, squalid living conditions, confiscation of passports, and the requirement of exit permits.
Even though Qatar claims to have abolished the infamous kafala sponsorship system, which prevented migrant workers from changing jobs or leaving the country without the employer's permission, there remain loopholes in the regulations, including the requirement of a "no-objection certificate" from the employer to change jobs, initiation of criminal proceedings if workers leave the job without permission, and confiscation of passports in certain circumstances.
Exploitation and abuse of migrant workers are pervasive problems in Qatar. In 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited a worker's camp in downtown Doha, he assured them that he would raise their grievances with the Qatari government and would work with them to bring change. Despite the promises made by both these governments on reforms in labour laws, no concrete steps have been taken by the Qatari officials to protect the rights of these workers.
There are 6,30,000 Indian nationals who constitute the Indian diaspora in Qatar working as labourers and living in labour camps. Approximately 95 percent of the labour force in Qatar is migrant workers, out of which more than 30 percent are Indian nationals. These migrant Indian workers are from impoverished backgrounds and have moved to Qatar to support their families by working as low-wage laborers.
There has been a steep increase in the influx of migrant Indian workers since 2010 when Qatar won the hosting rights for the 2022 Football World Cup, and it is expected to peak in the next two years. In its bid to develop showcase stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup, Qatar employs approximately 40 percent of the migrant workers in the construction sector.
With the number of migrant workers scaling up, India should include its diasporaâs concerns in all bilateral discussions with Qatar. The Indian government should actively engage with the Qatari government and insist that Qatar carry out investigations into workers' deaths and make comprehensive data publicly available.
India is best positioned to demand that FIFA and the Qatari government change legislation to allow complete removal of exit permits by ensuring employers do not use tactics such as passport confiscation and arbitrary travel bans. Also, the Indian government should insist that Qatar provide rights to employees for wilful change or termination of a job without the requirement of employers' permission or âno-objection certificate.' On the domestic front, the Indian government should ensure strict legal action against recruiting firms in India that mislead workers on wages and debt. Indian citizens should not have to pay to work.
Safeguarding the rights of the Indian diaspora in Qatar is the duty and responsibility of the Indian government. With over three years remaining to the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar and the escalating surge in construction work, New Delhi can and should step up its effort to address concerns of Indian workers in Qatar.
Ritubhan Gautam is an Indian citizen studying Public Administration at Columbia Universityâs graduate school.
Views are authors own.