I doubt Nirmala Pakrin knows who David Beckham is, but she knows about Qatar.
Her husband, Rupchandra Rumba, a 24-year-old from Nepal, died in 2019, gasping for breath in a squalid camp for labourers on the outskirts of Doha, while working for a contractor on one of the new World Cup stadiums.
Pakrin received some compensation from insurance schemes her husband had taken out before he left home, but his employer in Qatar paid her less than £1,500.
I visited her near the time in the small room she lived in on the outskirts of Kathmandu with her then six-year-old son, Niraj. “He keeps asking one question,” she told me, “Where’s my dad?”
As someone who met children like Niraj when he visited Nepal as a Unicef ambassador, you might expect Beckham to think twice before signing up to represent Qatar.
But it has been widely reported that the former England captain, who visited Qatar this month, has agreed a deal to be an ambassador for the Qatar World Cup and beyond, for an astronomical fee.
A spokesperson for Beckham said: “[David] has seen the passion for football in the country and the long-term commitment that’s been made to hosting the World Cup and delivering a lasting legacy for the region. He has always talked about the power of football as a force for good on many levels.”
Another source said: “David believes in Qatar’s commitment to progress and that the World Cup – the first to be held in the Arab world – can effect significant positive change.”
I was also in Qatar this month, but the picture Beckham described is very different to the one I saw, and have witnessed during eight years of reporting from the country.
Driving between Doha’s skyscrapers, I passed the twisting, shimmering al-Bidda tower, home to the offices of Qatar’s World Cup organising committee, which were fitted out by workers from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, some of whom went unpaid for months.
Heading north I drove into Lusail City, a district of gaudy and outrageous buildings, which will host the World Cup final. In 2014 I reported that one was being built by North Koreans employed in conditions likely to constitute slave labour. It is now a luxury hotel.
On the edge of the city I passed the labour camps where I have seen workers crammed 10 to a room, with hundreds sharing a handful of toilets and fly-infested kitchens.
World Cup stadium construction has only ever involved a fraction of the vast migrant workforce in Qatar, but the event has fuelled a building boom – a new airport, roads, metro system, hotels – which has employed many thousands, largely through private companies.
The World Cup organising committee says it has been at the forefront of efforts to improve working conditions in the country, but as I drive down to Al-Janoub stadium I remember the workers I interviewed there in 2014, who said they were being paid as little as 45p an hour. Four years later I met the devastated family of Tej Narayan Tharu, a Nepali worker who fell to his death at the stadium.
Tharu was one of more than 6,500 workers from south Asia who have died in Qatar since it was awarded the right to host the World Cup. They were not all construction workers, but 70% of their deaths were not properly investigated, according to research by Amnesty International.
There have been 38 deaths on World Cup construction projects, of which 35 have been classified by the organisers as “non-work related”.
Beckham would have seen none of this. Instead, he was photographed walking through Souq Waqif, a bazaar and dining venue popular with visitors, as long as they are not young migrant workers from south Asia. In 2016, I filmed them being apparently turned away from the premises by the police.
Last month I witnessed more low-wage migrant workers seemingly being ejected from Aspire Park and from the “VIP” wing of a shopping mall.
Beckham also visited Msheireb, perhaps Qatar’s most stylish district, full of top hotels and restaurants. It is also packed with security guards enduring long shifts in the sweltering heat. We know about their lives because one of them, a Kenyan named Malcolm Bidali, wrote articles describing the gross mistreatment he and others suffered. In May, he was detained for almost a month, charged with publishing “false news” and fined 25,000 rials (nearly £5,000).
When I asked a Nepali security guard in Msheireb if he would like to watch a World Cup match, he shrugged and said: “I’d like to, but how can I afford a ticket? The World Cup is not for us.”
The Qatari authorities cite recent labour reforms as a sign that things are changing. The reforms have been described as a “new era” for workers rights by a number of international organisations and trade unions. In September 2020, the regime announced an end to the kafala sponsorship system, under which workers were unable to change jobs without their employer’s permission, leaving them vulnerable to forced labour, a form of slavery.
That policy appears to have had some impact when it was first introduced, with the Qatari authorities claiming in the summer that 100,000 workers had changed jobs. But in recent months it seems employers have begun to push back against it.
“My company refuses to let me go,” said one Indian security guard at an upmarket hotel. “They threaten us, saying they will deduct the cost of our room and bedding from our salary and refuse to pay the end of service benefit if we try to leave. We are still under their control.”
The other flagship reform, the introduction of a minimum wage, which came into force in March 2021, is equally flawed. The minimum wage was set at 1,000 rials (£200) a month, plus food and board. If food and board are not provided, workers must be paid an additional allowance of 300 rials for food and 500 rials for board.
The monthly wage works out at £1 an hour. The food allowance means workers have £2 a day to feed themselves.
Since when is a minimum wage of £1 an hour, in one of the richest countries in the world per capita, something to applaud?
A Qatari official acknowledged that its labour system is “still a work in progress” but said its labour reforms have benefitted over a million migrant workers.
“Since taking the decision to use the World Cup as a catalyst to accelerate reforms, Qatar has engaged collaboratively and constructively with a range of international partners and critics,” said the official. “Qatar’s laws have set new standards for the region … This progress does not mean our work is done. With the new laws now in place, the emphasis has shifted to effective implementation and enforcement.”
The official said Qatar has stepped up efforts to identify and punish companies that try to evade the law with stricter penalties for violators and new courts for workers to access justice. “Qatar is committed to protecting workers from all forms of exploitation and abuse. Labour reform is a complex issue, and we believe that solutions are best found through dialogue and engagement,” the official added.
Qatar and its backers should be exploring ways to compensate all the workers who have been forced to pay illegal recruitment fees, whose wages have been paid late or not at all and who have suffered from appallingly low salaries.
That is not to say there has been no progress. Passport confiscation appears to be less common and most workers (with the exception of some security guards) seem to be receiving at least the minimum wage. While salaries remain shockingly low, they are higher than they were when I first started reporting from Qatar in 2013, although so too are living costs.
A spokesperson for Qatar’s World Cup organising committee said its, “commitment to ensuring the health, safety and dignity of all workers employed on our projects has remained steadfast and unwavering.”
The spokesperson said the committee’s work had resulted in significant improvements to living standards and working conditions, and had accelerated Qatar’s recent “groundbreaking” labour reforms.
“We acknowledge that there remains a long journey ahead, and we are committed – with our partners in Qatar and beyond – to ensuring that we continue to deliver the legacy we promised. A legacy that improves lives and lays the foundation for fair, sustainable, and lasting labour reforms,” the spokesperson said.
But even if you buy the official narrative, these reforms are too little too late. Almost all of the key World Cup infrastructure was completed by the end of 2020. So whichever way you look at it, this will be a World Cup built on exploitation.
So what should footballers such as Beckham do?
Follow the lead of other footballers who have taken the time to engage, educate themselves and act.
The Norwegian, German, Danish and Dutch teams have already made powerful stands for workers’ rights during the World Cup qualifying rounds.
As Norway and Southampton footballer Mohamed Elyounoussi said in a recent interview with the Guardian. “You cannot just go in and talk about that country if you have no knowledge about the country or how it works.” He urged people to listen to organisations such as Amnesty. “I think it is good to listen to them. We have a voice and I think it is good that we can use it for the greater good.”
The most important people to listen to are the group Beckham seems to have forgotten about – the men who built the stadiums and infrastructure he appears so keen to promote.
On a humid evening, I sat on the grass verge of the corniche, a promenade that sweeps around the bay at the heart of Doha, with a group of Nepali workers. Their verdict was clear. “They just use us and then throw us away,” said one. “It’s simple. They just don’t care.”