Pete Pattisson, award-winning investigative journalist who reports on labor exploitation and modern forms of slavery around the world, addresses the 12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy — see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
On exploitation of migrants in Qatar:
“My reporting began in the summer of 2013 when I spent day after day outside the arrivals gate of Kathmandu’s airport. But then I would wait, and something else comes out on those trolleys: coffins, carrying the bodies of migrant workers.”
“A job in Qatar is not a route out of poverty, it is a trap.”
“Migrant workers aren’t free to live where they choose – they are housed by their employer in vast labor camps totally segregated from the rest of society. Most are squalid and over-crowded, with often 8 or 10 men to a room.”
On Qatar’s failure to address the problem:
“Why does Qatar let this happen? After seven years of reporting on this issue, I only have one answer: they just don’t care.”
“There are people in the Qatar regime who don’t see the migrant workers as human. For them, these people are disposable.”
“Qatar’s economic model is not built on gas or oil, but the exploitation of some of the most vulnerable workers in the world.”
On case of Rupchandra Rumba:
“Rupchandra Rumba had come to Qatar to make some money for his family, but like everyone who looks for work in Qatar, he had had to pay a recruitment agent in Nepal to secure this job.”
“When he got to Qatar, he found the job and the salary he was offered was different to what he was promised in Nepal. He ended up being paid just 8 euros a day.”
“When he arrived, the first thing his employer did was confiscate his passport.”
“Rupchandra’s death was not a one-off. Every year, hundreds of workers die like this in Qatar.”
“If hundreds of Arabs or westerners were dying in mysterious circumstances each year there would be outrage, but when poor Nepali or Bangladeshi workers die, there is only silence.”
When football fans travel to the World Cup in Qatar in 3 years’ time; the airport they arrive at, the hotels they stay in, the roads they travel on and the stadiums they sit in, will all have been built with the help of slave labour.
Qatar is a small, authoritarian Gulf state. It is one of the richest countries in the world, but it lacks one thing – cheap labour. And so for years it has been importing hundreds of thousands of workers – mostly young men from some of the poorest countries in the world – Nepal, Bangladesh, India and parts of Africa – to help it build its World Cup dream.
For the past seven years I have been documenting on the lives of these workers for The Guardian newspaper, from my base in Nepal.
My reporting began in the summer of 2013 when I spent day after day outside the arrivals gate of Kathmandu’s airport. I would watch as hundreds of returning migrant workers would come off each flight. Some pushed trolleys carrying flat-screen TV – a sign that for some, economic migration to the Gulf works. But then I would wait, and after the men had left, something else comes out on those trolleys: coffins, carrying the bodies of migrant workers. One of them was a boy called Ganesh Biswakarma, and I followed his coffin back to his village.
Ganesh’s story became part of my first report on Qatar. Seven years and over 40 articles later, I’m still going back to Qatar.
I was there in September, and I was told about a construction worker from Nepal, who had died suddenly in his sleep in June. His name was Rupchandra Rumba and he was 24 years old.
So, I drove out to meet some of his co-workers and they told me that Rupchandra had been working for the past 3 months as a scaffolder at one of the new Word Cup stadiums.
Now the committee organising the WC have made a big deal about how well they treat the workers building the stadiums, but Rupchandra’ story seemed to illustrate everything to goes wrong when poor migrants go to Qatar.
They told me, Rupchandra had come to Qatar to make some money for his family, but like everyone who looks for work in Qatar, he had had to pay a recruitment agent in Nepal to secure this job – these recruitment fees can be anything from 1000 to 5000 euros. And since these workers do no have that kind of money, they borrow it at high interest rates, so they are deep in debt before they have even leave home. [Many spend years simply paying off the debt, without earning a thing.]
Then, when he got to Qatar, he found the job and the salary he was offered was different to what he was promised in Nepal. He ended up being paid just 8 euros a day. If you talk to migrant workers in Qatar, this is the issue that comes up time and again: low pay, late pay and sometimes no pay. You see, for many, a job in Qatar is not a route out of poverty, it’s a trap.
Now you might think, why didn’t Rupchandra just leave and find another job? Well, firstly, he didn’t have his passport. It was confiscated by his employer when he arrived in Qatar.
And second, Rupchandra and all the other 2 million migrant workers in Qatar are subject to a sponsorship system, known as kafala. Under kafala, you cannot leave your job without your employer’s permission – it means your employer effectively owns you.
And so it is these conditions that leave tens of thousands of workers vulnerable to forced labour and bonded labour, which are modern forms of slavery.
So I asked Rupchandra’s co-workers to take me to the place where he died. Now migrant workers aren’t free to live where they choose – they are housed by their employer in vast labour camps – yes, they’re actually called labour camps – totally segregated from the rest of society. Most are squalid and over-crowded, with often 8 or 10 men to a room.
This was Rupchandra’s labour camp, and it was a truly appalling place to die.
Rupchandra’s friends told me that early one morning in June, while they were all still in bed, his roommates said they heard him struggling for breath. They said it sounded as if someone was choking him. They called for an ambulance and he was taken to hospital, but it was too late.
Now Rupchandra’s death was not a one-off. Hundreds of workers die like this in Qatar each year and in the majority of cases their deaths are attributed to so-called ‘natural causes’. I say ‘so-called’ because no one really knows why they are dying because the Qatari regime refuses to investigate the deaths.
If hundreds of Arabs or westerners were dying in mysterious circumstances each year there would be outrage, but when poor Nepali or Bangladeshi workers die, there is only silence.
Now Rupchandra had a wife, Nirmala, and a seven year-old son, Niraj, so I went back to Kathmandu and met them in the small room they live in on the edge of the city. And I asked Nirmala how much compensation she had received from Qatar. And she said, I didn’t get any compensation from Qatar. All I got was, 530 euros. I asked her where did that come from? And she said, Rupchandra’s workmates – you know, the ones who are making 8 euros a day – all donated whatever they could afford and sent it to me.
And so in Qatar, you have tens of thousands of men living in what is effectively state-sponsored slavery.
You have a World Cup stadium worker who died, but there has been no investigation into his death.
You have a wife with no husband, no income, no compensation from the richest country in the world.
And you have a seven year-old boy, who keeps asking one question: “Where’s my dad?”
Which all begs another question: why does Qatar let this happen?
And after seven years of reporting on this issue, the short answer is: they just don’t care.
You see, the Qatari authorities don’t actually see migrant workers as human. For them, these people are disposable.
Qatar’s economic model is not built on gas or oil, but the exploitation of some of the most vulnerable workers in the world.
And so in Qatar – and indeed across the Gulf – slavery still exists for the same reason it has always existed throughout history: one race thinks they are superior to another race.
Football is the global game. We all love it, and no one wants it to be tainted by the sweat and blood of exploited workers.
So if you want to do something, here’s what I suggest. Just a few hours’ drive away from here is the headquarters of FIFA, football’s governing body. It’s their World Cup – that’s why its officially called the ‘FIFA World Cup’, and so it’s their responsibility. They are directly accountable. So lets hold them to account. [Slide with call to action details].
When the WC starts is over in three years time, I wonder what names you will remember? Will be those of the world’s soccer superstars: Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, Christiano Ronaldo.
Not for me. The names I will remember are: Ganesh Bishwakarma, Rupchandra Rumba and his son Niraj who is still asking, “Where’s my dad?”