From his home in Bangladesh, Emran Khan watches on his laptop as World Cup teams face off in Qatar’s Lusail Stadium.
But he doesn’t think of the ball or the players or the tens of thousands of cheering fans.
Instead, he remembers heaving hundreds of 20-pound concrete blocks for up to 16 hours a day in the scorching sun. He remembers his colleagues vomiting and fainting when the temperature soared to 122 degrees. And he remembers those who died.
“We die for work,” Khan said via video call from Dhaka, shaking his head. “We are human beings at the end of the day. We are not machines.”
Khan, 34, is indebted and traumatized by his two years in the oil-rich emirate. He’s just one of the millions of migrants who worked in the Gulf state in the lead-up to the World Cup. As teams enter the second week of play, he and other activists are continuing to call attention to the true human toll of the controversial tournament.
“There is a lot of pain behind this event,” Anish Adhikari, 27, a migrant worker from Nepal, said through a translator. “We contributed to build the stadiums and make the event happen, but at the same time we faced challenges — from non-payment to deception and other sorts of abuses.”
Some even lost their lives. While the Qatari government admits to dozens of deaths among migrants working on World Cup projects, human rights groups say thousands died to make the games possible.
Migrant workers in Qatar and the kafala system
Asked about the deaths of migrant workers, FIFA said the World Cup being held in Qatar largely contributed to improved protections for migrant workers and the organization continues “applying pressure on companies when needed to ensure remediation of workers involved in FIFA World Cup preparations.”
FIFA chose Qatar as the site of the World Cup in 2010 following a bid the U.S. Justice Department later concluded involved bribery. Since then, the small nation has pumped more than $220 billion into infrastructure, including eight new stadiums, scores of hotels, a metro system and expansions to its airports and roadways, Qatar Central Bank data shows.
About 1.5 million fans from around the world are expected to visit during the 29-day tournament, according to a study of ticket sales done by London-based Capital Economics. Ticket sales reached about 3 million by mid-October and the tournament is expected to generate a record $7.5 billion of revenue, according to FIFA.
“Doha was ripped up and rebuilt in many respects to make this tournament possible,” said Nick McGeehan, a founding director of FairSquare Research and Projects who advocates for migrant workers’ rights.
Qatar has a population of nearly 3 million people. But just a fraction — about 300,000 — are Qatari citizens. The country is home to more than two million migrants workers, who are largely responsible for the rapid infrastructure build-up, according to the nonprofit Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.
The construction was largely done through an exploitative system of bonded labor, known as the “kafala,” or sponsorship, system, which binds foreign workers to their sponsor (typically the employer). It’s a legal framework found in Jordan, Lebanon and Arab Gulf states.
In Qatar, that meant migrant workers had passports confiscated upon arrival, said Natasha Iskander, a migration scholar and professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service. They couldn’t change or quit jobs without permission or withhold labor for any reason — even non-payment of wages or dangerous conditions. Protesting and unionizing was prohibited. Workers needed an exit visa approved by their employer to leave the country.
“There are two societies in Qatar and the Gulf. You have the wealthy segment of society, which is Qataris and Western workers, ex-pats, who live very privileged, high-lifestyles in very glitzy five-star apartments,” McGeehan said. “But that’s only a tiny fragment of the population. The country is sustained by a low-paid migrant workforce who live in entirely different conditions — in slum-like conditions on the outskirts of the city.”
Khan said he traveled to Qatar in 2016 with hopes of earning money to make a better life for his family. He took on debt to pay a $3,000 recruitment fee and was promised a job as an engineering assistant for about $350 a month.
Instead, he found himself working as a “laborer” at multiple stadiums and living with three roommates in “labor city,” a camp for migrant workers on the outskirts of Doha. He made about $200 a month after his company deducted a fee for food.
Khan said he would wake up each morning before 5 a.m., wait for the company vehicle and pass out in the car, unsure where he’d be sent. “It’s mental torture. You don’t know what will happen next day,” he said. Sometimes he didn’t have time for breakfast.
Khan said when a concrete cube fell on his leg, he couldn’t stop work because he would just have to work double the next day to hit his targets. When he raised frustrations with his employer, Khan said the employer threatened to send him back to Bangladesh.
“It is painful for me. They already took my passport,” said Khan, who returned to Bangladesh in 2018. “I had no chance to argue.”
Amid heightened international scrutiny and widespread reports of human rights violations, Qatar partnered with the United Nations labor agency, the International Labour Organization, to make legal changes to the kafala system in 2017.
The reforms were completed in the past couple years, said Iskander, who spent a year interviewing and shadowing migrant workers on construction projects in Qatar and authored a book on the topic.
Now, workers are able to change jobs, leave the country at will and file complaints with labor courts. There’s also a minimum wage of $275 a month.
On paper, migrant workers in Qatar now have more rights than some migrant workers in the U.S., Iskander said. “In practice, though, industry practices that grew out of the kafala system are very much enforced,” she said.
Labor and human rights abuses continue in Qatar
Labor and human rights violations persist in Qatar despite reforms, according to migrant workers, NGOs and research groups who spoke with USA TODAY Sports and published reports on the issue.
“There just is not enough evidence that the system as it impacts a migrant worker is significantly different than it was back in 2010 when they won the tournament,” McGeehan said.
The past two years, migrant workers at all eight World Cup stadiums have suffered abuses — from wage theft to physical assault and inadequate nutrition — at the hands of major construction firms, a recent report from international charity and research group Equidem found.
Equidem researchers said they conducted in-depth interviews with 60 migrant workers employed across the stadiums and spoke to a total of 982 workers.
More on the report: Abuse of migrant workers at Qatar World Cup stadiums continues despite reforms
Adhikari said he endured numerous abuses during his time in Qatar. The “big fan of Messi” said he started playing soccer at six years old, when he and friends would wrap clothes into a ball and kick around an empty field after harvest season. He left his home in Khotang, Nepal, in early 2019 to work on Lusail Stadium, where the World Cup final will be played.
Adhikari said he was promised work as an electrical helper at about $250 a month. Instead, he worked as an “unloader” and insulator helper and was paid about $200 a month, which, minus the company deductifor food, came out to about $165, he said.
Adhikari lived at what he called a “labor camp” where the AC didn’t work and there was limited water and long lines to bathe. Asked about the food, Adhikari grimaced. He said it was so bad some workers got diarrhea but would not be allowed to go to the toilet.
“The work was very difficult. We would not have even a minute to take a rest. Even we would not have sufficient time to go to the bathrooms,” he said.
Adhikari said his company forced employees to work in “intolerable” heat, even after authorities put up red flags indicating it was too hot to work. But after a long day, Adhikari said he would still wake up at midnight to watch Lionel Messi’s games.
When Adhikari raised concerns with his managers about wages and living and working conditions, they threatened to send him back to Nepal, he said. After 32 months at Lusail Stadium, he was transferred to a military hospital construction site because he “complained,” Adhikari said. He worked there for a month and returned home last year.
Geoffrey Owino, 40, spent nearly four years in the country from 2018 through this past June. In Kenya, he paid a $1,500 recruitment fee and was promised work for $400 a month. He ended up living in a room with seven other people, sleeping in bunkbeds, and working for $200 a month.
“I got the shock of my life on Day 1,” Owino said via video call from Nairobi.
Owino, who helped form a labor union back in Kenya, said his company terminated him in 2020 because he was “educating people on their rights.” He managed to secure a new job as a safety inspector at Lusail Stadium.
“It was eye-opening because the laws were very clear,” Owino said. “The problem is, those laws were just there as mere formality.”
Owino said migrants were forced to work at heights in extreme heat and dangerous conditions, creating fall hazards. When he raised concerns, Owino said he was scolded for slowing down the work.
The conditions had deadly consequences.
Qatar’s official numbers on migrant worker deaths at World Cup stadiums
It’s unclear how many people have been killed or injured working on projects tied to the World Cup.
On Monday, Hassan Al-Thawadi, secretary-general of the Supreme Committee of Delivery and Legacy, the World Cup organizing committee, said during a television interview that an estimated 400 to 500 migrant workers died as a result of World Cup projects.
But organizers quickly walked that back in a statement, saying there were 414 work-related fatalities “covering all sectors and nationalities” – not just World Cup projects – nationwide between 2014-2020
The committee’s official total of deaths among migrants working on World Cup projects is far smaller. Organizers have reported three “work-related” deaths at stadiums and 37 “non-work-related” deaths since 2014.
And many of those “non-work-related” deaths — among migrants from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey and Ethiopia — appear work-related.
Consider the deaths of three migrants last year working at Lusail Stadium, where 80,000 people will celebrate the World Cup final next month on International Migrants Day:
One started feeling dizzy while on break. One stepped out of the machine he was operating and collapsed. One was found unresponsive in his room.
Their deaths were all listed as “non-work-related” and attributed to “natural causes.”
“One death is a death too many, plain and simple,” Al-Thawadi said during the interview.
While the official government accounts provide some insight into the deaths associated with World Cup projects, they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
Report says 6,500 migrant workers died for Qatar’s World Cup
Thousands of people have been harmed over the past decade, human rights groups say. The problem is Qatar doesn’t properly investigate deaths, which leads to inaccurate categorization and incomplete data, McGeehan said.
“We need proper data and thorough investigations, not vague figures announced through media interviews,” McGeehan said.
A report last year from the International Labour Organization, concluded it is “currently not possible” to put a number on occupational injuries and fatalities in Qatar.
“There is a need to review the approach taken to investigating deaths of seemingly healthy young workers from ‘natural causes’, to be able to determine whether they are in fact work-related,” the report said.
Among Nepali migrant workers in Qatar, a “large proportion” of deaths attributed to heart problems were actually likely due to serious heat stroke, a 2019 study by a team of international researchers found.
In the absence of reliable data from Qatar, media outlets and human rights groups have focused on numbers from migrants’ home countries to describe the scope of the problem.
A widely-circulated report from The Guardian last year found more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka died in Qatar between 2010 and 2020.
The figure includes all ages and occupations but does not include deaths of migrants from other countries that regularly send workers to Qatar, such as the Philippines and Kenya.
More than 17,000 non-Qataris of all ages, occupations and countries of origin died in the Qatar between 2010 and 2020, official government statistics show.
“It’s impossible to precisely say how many have died, and a shouting match between figures is essentially what’s going on,” McGeehan said. “It’s actually, in my view, quite counterproductive because it obscures the discussion that we need to be having and the fact of the issue, which is the incredibly high rate of unexplained deaths.”
Ruba Jaradat, ILO Regional Director for Arab States, told USA TODAY Sports proper death investigations are “important to ensure workers’ families receive due compensation.”
In a statement earlier this month, Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee said it “investigates all non-work-related deaths and work-related fatalities.”
“In parallel to stringent health and safety standards, our record for transparency goes beyond any construction project in this region, previous FIFA World Cups, and many international construction projects,” the statement said.
Migrant workers demand compensation from Qatar, FIFA
Earlier this year, a coalition of human rights organizations, fans and trade unions launched a campaign calling on Qatar and FIFA to establish a fund to compensate workers and their families for unpaid wages, forced labor, injuries and death.
The coalition demands FIFA set aside at least $440 million for the fund — the equivalent of prize money distributed at the World Cup. FIFA stands to make $6 billion in revenues from the tournament, according to Amnesty International.
Qatar has already paid out at least $350 million in unpaid wages to more than 37,000 workers through its Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund, according to the ILO. The fund was established in 2018 and became operational in 2020. Half of the money has been paid out since July, according to the ILO.
“If you have a system where workers are not being paid over a couple of years $300 million, then you don’t have a system that’s forcing employers to pay wages,” Iskander said. “And those are just the proven and demonstrated non-paid wages.”
Khan, who has become a labor rights activist since returning to Bangladesh, said compensation should address migrant workers’ mental health, too. “We’re burning inside,” Khan said. “Nobody sees that.”
Adhikari said seeing the world’s top footballers play in the stadium he built gives him “immense satisfaction.” But he’s still heavily in debt from taking out a loan to pay a $1,500 recruitment fee. He’s planning to go abroad again to find work.
“I don’t have any other option to earn that big amount of money to pay back the loan,” Adhikari said.
At the end of September, 15 U.S. representatives signed a letter supporting the proposal for a compensation fund. In October, the U.S. Soccer Federation signed a letter from Amnesty International in support of the measure.
“We are supporting the fund,” Neil Buethe, spokesperson for U.S. Soccer, said in a statement.
FIFA has signaled it’s open to the idea. But, on the eve of the World Cup, FIFA president Gianni Infantino chided the U.S. and Europe for criticizing Qatar’s record of human and labor rights violations. “It’s sad that we can’t focus on football,” he said.
Asked about the possibility of a compensation fund, FIFA said “workers have been compensated in various forms” and dialogue continues about initiatives to benefit workers “long after the final game of the World Cup.”
Owino called on FIFA to live up to its motto: Fair play.
“What is in it for the migrant workers who toiled day and night to make this World Cup a success?” he said. “The minimum we are asking for is for these workers to be compensated.”
Advocates say the rights of migrant workers in Qatar and worldwide need to remain an international priority beyond this year’s World Cup.
“Qatar is not a uniquely bad actor here. The working conditions in Qatar and the legal framework governing migrant work in Qatar are not that different from the working conditions that migrants face all around the world,” Iskander said, urging Americans to critically reflect on the U.S. migrant labor system, especially with the 2026 FIFA World Cup to be held in Canada, Mexico and the U.S.
“What (FIFA) has delivered here is a human rights catastrophe, and the baton — that World Cup baton — is about to be passed to the U.S. And it will be tainted with the legacy of Qatar 2022,” McGeehan said.
For Owino, it’s hard to think about watching any matches in the coming weeks. He’s not sure if he’ll ever watch a World Cup again.
“My body wishes to watch but my heart is no longer there,” he said. “It’s not ethically right.”
Government reports of migrant workers deaths are sourced from Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy annual Workers’ Welfare Progress Reports.
Graphics by Jim Sergent. Database by Neena Hagen.