According to human rights organizations, the death toll is in the thousands. Qatari organizers’ official count, which they carefully limit to deaths on projects directly related to the tournament, is 37, and only three if only workplace accidents are counted. Every life, however, has a story to tell.
Chaudhary examines the photograph once more.
“I’ve seen his face before — he’s very high, very important,” Chaudhary says, his hands raised above his head. He finally acknowledges Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, the world soccer governing body.
Chaudhary shook his head. To him, the stadium was just another structure, another job.
The Machine’s Fuel
Crammed between regional superpowers India and China, Nepal, a country with little industry but a large and eager labor force, may be the ideal setting to explain the collision of ambition and necessity that built this year’s World Cup.
For decades, Nepal has struggled to provide meaningful opportunities for large segments of its population, particularly those living in rural areas. Trapped between poverty, despair, and necessity, hundreds of thousands of these citizens now seek employment abroad each year.
Only India, a much larger country, has sent more workers to Qatar’s construction sites and jobs in the last decade: 204,000 were granted labor permits in 2015 alone, near the peak of the World Cup construction boom. According to the government, they are part of an ongoing exodus that has seen more than a quarter of Nepal’s population migrate to work abroad since records on such work began being collected in 1994.
Looking for Work Abroad
Qatar was one of the top destinations for Nepalis migrating to work in other countries in the fiscal year ending in July 2021.
Exported labor is so vital to Nepal’s economy that there are not one but two government departments dedicated to migration. Krishna Prasad Bhusal, a spokesman for one of them, the Department of Foreign Employment, said 650,000 Nepalis left on foreign employment contracts in the last year alone. According to government figures, the remittances they send home account for a quarter of the country’s national income, a higher percentage than all but six other nations. Migrant jobs, he said, “will be important for many years.”
So high are the power imbalances, though, and so valuable are the jobs that even migrant labor activists in the country admit they sometimes fear pushing too hard for reforms. There are, after all, plenty of poor people in neighboring countries competing for the work, and for the money it brings home.
At the same time, Nepal may have paid more for its migrant labor than other countries. According to data compiled by Nepal’s labor ministry, at least 2,100 Nepali workers have died in Qatar since 2010, when the country won the World Cup hosting rights. (A large number of people have died in other countries as well: more than 3,500 in Malaysia, nearly 3,000 in Saudi Arabia, and at least 1,000 in the United Arab Emirates.)
These workers die from a variety of ailments — premature heart attacks and unexplained heat-related health problems described by one local official as “environmental disadaptation” — that no one has committed to studying but will eventually kill thousands more. Over the last decade, there have also been an alarming number of suicides among Nepali migrant workers in Qatar, with nearly 200 recorded.
Bishwa Raj Dawadi, a doctor on the labor ministry’s committee that investigates death certificates and migrant worker injuries, has noticed another troubling trend: young laborers suffering from kidney failure after returning from the Gulf. He claims that many people return to their villages without receiving the necessary treatment, and that many of them die within two years of returning home.
“I’m sad because they’re all young men,” he explained.
The dead are overwhelmingly men between the ages of 20 and 45, all of whom would have had to pass government-mandated medical exams before being allowed to work abroad. “It’s really a mysterious thing because they’re medically fit from here,” said Anjali Shrestha, a foreign employment board official. “Of course, people die in Nepal.” But not in this way.”
Hundreds of those who return in coffins are labeled as having died “naturally,” and no autopsies are ever performed.
Working in Qatar and Dying
Since 2010, over 2,100 Nepali workers have died in Qatar. According to data collected by Nepali labor officials, these are the leading causes of death.
Chaudhary, a stocky man with a thin mustache, walks to the back of his house to retrieve a bag. He reaches inside and pulls out a square bottle containing orange and white capsules. They are part of a daily regimen he says is now necessary after experiencing dizziness and collapsing while working in the desert sun. “It’s hot,” he acknowledged, “but what are we going to do?”
Others, he knows, have gone through far worse.
Sanju Jaiswal, 24, and her husband, Amrish, were optimistic about his new job in Qatar changing their family’s fortunes. There were even plans to relocate to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, so that their three children could receive a better education. A job as a motorcycle courier provided a way into that life. However, Amrish died just five months after arriving in Doha last October, when he was hit by a car while making a food delivery.
Jaiswal, wiping away tears with a thin shawl she wears to cover her hair, expressed concern about her future. Her relationship with her in-laws has deteriorated, and the bills are piling up. The local school threatened to suspend her children, all of whom were under the age of ten, unless she promptly paid their overdue fees.
“This is the most heartbreaking situation for me,” Jaiswal said as her youngest child tugged at her sleeve for attention.
Jaiswal, who has been depressed since Amrish’s death, has developed a morbid habit of scouring the social media platform TikTok for stories about other bereaved families.
They are not difficult to locate.
On a Thursday morning last month, multiple flights were departing for Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital and the country’s largest employer outside of the Gulf countries. Departing passengers are directed to one of three lines: one for Nepalis, one for foreigners, and one marked with the words “Nepali Migrant Workers.” That was by far the busiest lane.
Bigyan Rai, 32, said he used to work in television advertising and as a model before the jobs dried up. He was leaving his country, his family, and his 10-month-old son as he stood in line at the airport. He has no other choice, he says, despite a lack of opportunities and the pervasive corruption of a system that exploits the powerless.
“Sometimes I feel very unlucky to be Nepali,” he admitted.
Billboards, walls, and buses in Kathmandu are plastered with advertisements for visa and job placement services from Canada, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. However, the siren of overseas jobs is most audible in the countryside.
In many ways, the village of Sonigama, a collection of mostly mud-and-timber structures surrounded by row upon row of sugar cane and paddy fields, is unremarkable. Sonigama, like nearly every other town and village in Nepal, is a place where men looking for work want to get out.
Tetri Sharma is sitting on a grassy knoll near a pond on the outskirts of the village, waiting for a ride to a neighboring village. Sharma claims that two of her sons are in the Gulf region, one in Qatar and the other in an unknown location. A man named Ram Prasad Mandal approaches the water a few minutes later. He’s wearing a sarong and a stained white T-shirt and holding a wooden staff as he leads a buffalo toward the water. Mandal, 55, claims to have a son in the area as well. Upendra, his eldest son, works as a cleaner in Dubai.
Mandal says the need for money is urgent. He cannot afford a dowry for his daughter, Babita; without one, he says, she will never marry. Every day Upendra spends in Dubai, every rupee he sends home, brings Babita’s wedding day a little closer.
“Boys come with a marriage proposal if you have money,” Babita’s mother says as Babita stands quietly alongside her, head lowered.
Neighbors soon gather, and other stories pour out. Nearly every villager has experienced working as a migrant laborer or has a relative overseas. The ones who have not, the locals say, are desperate to go.
Shiva Kumar Sada is among them. For now, he says, all there is to do is “time pass,” a common euphemism in South Asia that refers to idling. The only work he has is weaving baskets out of bamboo, which takes all day to complete and earns maybe a quarter of what he might make for a day’s labor in the Gulf.
Kumar Sada knows life abroad can be hard. He was at a worker protest over unpaid salaries in Saudi Arabia in 2018 that ended with soldiers’ firing live rounds into crowds. But that has not put him off from returning. He is desperate to go back. The reason, he said, is simple.
“Money,” he says in English, rubbing his thumbs. “Food,” he adds, bringing one of his hands to his mouth.
Paying to Work
Migrant laborers sit at the bottom end of an employment chain that begins with a foreign company seeking workers, and leads to a recruitment firm engaged to source them and agents who beat the bushes for eager applicants. Before they can even get jobs overseas, though, families first must plunge themselves into far worse financial straits.
To get one of the coveted jobs, prospective migrants have to borrow thousands of dollars — at annual interest rates of 30 percent or more — to pay recruitment fees that are typically more than $2,000, about 25 times the amount recruiters can legally demand. That can represent several months of salary promised away even before a worker leaves Nepal
Chaudhary, like millions of others, saw no option but to pay the fee, racking up debts that have only grown in the years since he first went abroad. An attempt to bring his eldest son, Santosh, to Qatar five years ago failed when the boy’s employer discovered he was underage. He was forced to return to Nepal, the agent fee lost.
Nepal has in recent years signed agreements with recruiting countries to limit such costs, but on the ground there is little sign of change, said Dwarika Upreti, the executive director of the foreign employment board. Recruitment companies, thanks to their financial heft and political connections, are able to evade most legal consequences, and the demand for labor in places like Qatar makes it worth the risk. Recruiting countries also rarely check if rules have been followed.
Some frauds are more brazen. In Kathmandu, Krishna Magar said he beat stiff competition to secure a coveted two-month posting as a security guard at the World Cup. He was told the visa and the flights would be taken care of by his employer, but as he prepared to depart, a Nepalese recruitment agent suddenly demanded a quarter of the $1,000 he was expecting to earn.
Magar was furious. “They are threatening to cancel my visa,” he said, standing outside an office where a steady stream of hopeful migrants comes daily to file complaints. But desperate to work, and running out of time, he hoped bringing attention to his case would free him of the shakedown attempt, and secure his passage to Qatar — and to the job he had been assured was waiting for him.
World Cup officials have for years bristled at criticism over the treatment of migrant workers, both in Qatar and in their home countries, calling the attacks unfair and noting they have made progress in improving conditions. That includes establishing a minimum wage ($275 per month) and the abolishment of a punitive system called kafala that allowed employers to hold their workers’ passports, making leaving the country or changing jobs effectively impossible for them without permission.
Critics point out that Qatar’s biggest changes only took place after much of the major construction was completed or were narrowly applied only to World Cup projects, and that enforcement remains patchy. But it hardly matters: Many migrants remain unaware of Qatar’s labor reforms or of its new protections for workers. Wage theft, according to outside groups, remains common.
“This event was entirely built on the backs of migrant workers, on a completely unequal balance of power,” said Michael Page, a deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “All these abuses have been entirely predictable.”
Dishonesty drives the labor machine. In Nepal, the rare recruiters who are wary of prosecution sometimes create their own type of insurance: videotaped statements of candidates falsely affirming that they have paid only the legal maximum in fees, 10,000 Nepali rupees, or about $75. “We have to lie,” said one migrant, part of a group hired to work security in Abu Dhabi that was interviewed at the airport.
He and others in his group freely revealed that they all had been coached to lie to immigration officials; all said they had paid at least 30 times the $75 amount. But getting it back is impossible; the money quickly disappears, untraceable. In one case, a migrant in the same group said, four or five agents in a recruitment office fought over their shares of a wad of cash almost immediately after he handed it over.
The Work Never Ends
Under a cloudless sky, a barefoot Shambhu Chaudhary dips his right hand into a bucket outside his modest home and swirls its contents, a mixture of earth and water, and then rubs fistfuls of the paste onto a wall. His house remains a work in progress.
Inside the two-story structure there is almost no natural light and little furnishing. Meals are cooked over an open fire in a kitchen, which is separated from the main room by a mud wall. Chaudhary, who most recently worked as a plasterer in Qatar, has become an expert at building walls.
There is his unfinished home. There are the groups of men of idling nearby, unable to find work. There is his 11-year-old son, Sajan, who is deaf, partly blind and paralyzed. And there is his older son, Santosh.
There is no work for Santosh, 22, in Bhokteni. His plan is to try again to find work overseas, the sort his father has done for two decades. Now it is his turn, his chance to assume the role as the family’s primary breadwinner.