‘A World Cup Built on Modern Slavery’: Stadium Workers Blow the Whistle on Qatar’s ‘Coverup’ of Migrant Deaths and Suffering

WorldCup - Credit: Photo composite by Matthew Cooley for Rolling Stone. Photographs in composite by Masashi Hara/FIFA/Getty Images; Elsa/Getty Images; Maya Alleruzzo/AP; Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images; Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images; Warren Little/Getty Images
WorldCup - Credit: Photo composite by Matthew Cooley for Rolling Stone. Photographs in composite by Masashi Hara/FIFA/Getty Images; Elsa/Getty Images; Maya Alleruzzo/AP; Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images; Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images; Warren Little/Getty Images

Anish Adhikari awoke at the Qatari labor camp at 4 a.m. to diarrhea from last night’s rotten fish. His tonsils were swollen from the limited water made available by his employer while working 14 hours a day in 125-degree heat. But he remained hopeful that building air conditioners for 80,000 ticket-holders could provide the equivalent of $8,000 over three years to support his family in Nepal. That he could pay back the loan shark who’d secured Adhikari a job beginning in 2019 with the Hamad Bin Khalid Contracting Co. (HBK), the contracting firm owned by the the highest echelons of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family. He thought of his father and sickly mother living with his six brothers, their four wives, and their eight children in a hurricane-ravaged farmhouse, using an animal shed for a kitchen. But the 23-year-old soccer fan was helping to construct the site of this year’s World Cup final; some days, when he arrived at Lusail Iconic Stadium before dawn, Adhikari forgot how exhausted he was.

The Qatari government and FIFA had promised labor reform and worker protections after soccer’s governing body awarded the World Cup to the repressive nation, where human-rights groups have long warned of migrant exploitation that could amount to indentured servitude. Adhikari had been able to meet with a representative from Qatar’s local Supreme Committee in charge of this tournament’s “legacy.” He could complain about working conditions that sent him into a full-body sweat “as if it was raining from the sky,” with spells of vomiting and heart palpitation — at least until, he alleges, HBK managers disinvited outspoken employees from worker-welfare forums. Adhikari recalls meeting twice with independent site inspectors from FIFA to complain that 95 percent of his recruitment expenses and employee benefits — and two-thirds of his salary — had vanished.

More from Rolling Stone

Adhikari and a colleague now claim, in interviews for an explosive new report by the labor-rights group Equidem, that the stadium site’s fire alarms would blare for a sudden evacuation. Except there was no fire coming at all, the construction workers allege — FIFA was. In a separate interview with Rolling Stone detailing his experiences in Qatar, Adhikari recalled that his foreman would call out, “The inspectors are coming! The inspectors are coming!” He says the royal-owned construction firm used the fire alarm “as a tactic” to herd workers outside, load them onto buses back to their surveilled camp, and apparently suggest to FIFA’s monitors that more than 4,000 migrants were out to lunch. Adhikari’s co-workers claim in the Equidem report that workers who hid at the site, attempting to meet with the inspectors, faced pay cuts and deportation.

“We were covered up by this big company owned by the royal family, despite FIFA having these standards,” Adhikari tells Rolling Stone from Nepal last week, in a video chat translated by Equidem. “I felt very much intimated at every point — and if I took action, I would be sent back home. I was so scared.”

According to the eight-year investigation by Equidem into the labor conditions under 16 construction firms, scheduled for released on Thursday and shared exclusively with Rolling Stone, World Cup stadium workers were subjected to “captive and controllable” conditions as Qatar’s government and FIFA shielded “forced labor” under the veneer of reform. The revelations come as more leading rights organizations and watchdogs are sounding the activist alarm — with confidential and undercover access to dozens of migrant whistleblowers — concerning unaccounted worker deaths and families of migrants left uncompensated and homeless while the Qataris and their partners generate up to $17 billion once the tournament kicks off this month.

“This,” says Equidem executive director Mustafa Qadri, “is a World Cup built on modern slavery.”

In a statement to Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for FIFA said that soccer’s governing body was in contact with its Qatari counterparts to assess the findings of Equidem’s report.

After this article was published, an official for the Qatari government provided a statement praising its own “comprehensive labour reform package.” Qatar, according to the statement, “conducted 3,712 labour inspections last month and has launched several national campaigns to raise awareness of the new labour laws. As a result of our actions and tough enforcement, the number of labour-related offences has declined year-on-year.”

Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy responded to Equidem’s findings with a statement outlining its standards for “ensuring that substandard contractors are eliminated at the earliest possible stage of the process” and that construction companies “are also subjected to ongoing due diligence,” while acknowledging that “our systems have at times been exploited by bad-faith contractors.” A spokesperson for HBK Contracting did not respond to a detailed list of questions for this story, nor did HBK officials respond to multiple requests for comment from Equidem for its investigation; reached by phone on Wednesday by Rolling Stone, HBK’s chief legal officer did not provide a comment. Of the 16 construction firms mentioned in Equidem’s report, only four responded, according to the report, denying all allegations.

Manju Devi said she begged the loan sharks — petting their feet while on her hands and knees — to forgive her late husband’s $10,000 debt. The family had taken out a loan at 36 percent annual interest so Kripal Mandal could travel from rural southern Nepal to work at an indoor-supply company contributing to an estimated $220 billion in World Cup infrastructure projects — including, Kripal’s brother said, for one of the eight stadiums. Now, according to a translation of an interview transcript provided by Human Rights Watch, they are starving.

Mandal’s wife recalled via Human Rights Watch that he’d sounded stressed over the phone one night this February: He’d been sending home as much as $150 each month, but after more than a decade in Qatar, he hadn’t paid back the money it had taken to get him there. When Mandal apparently suffered a heart attack the next day and died, the family claims that Qatar’s government accounted for his death as “nonwork related.” Which meant the government did not owe his family any compensation. The “legacy” committee encouraged but did not require the supply company to provide more than $20,000 in life insurance. Mandal’s brother alleged the company has withheld 15 days of back pay: “He had no problems,” said the brother, per the Human Rights Watch transcript. “But nobody provided any support.”

According to an analysis published last year by The Guardian, more than 6,500 migrant workers died in Qatar during the decade after FIFA handed it the World Cup in 2010. The Qatari government maintains that such figures are “wildly misleading” and were proportional to typical mortality rates, while citing health-and-safety reforms established in 2018 through a United Nations agency — such as banning midday work during hot summer months and insituting a nutrition program — for a decline in the overall “guest worker” mortality rate.

human rights watch family of kripal mandal
The family of Kripal Mandal, who died from a heart attack while working in Qatar.

Watchdogs, though, are more adamant than ever that the Qataris have deliberately obfuscated the number of “work-related” migrant deaths, evading postmortems, compensation, and further reform. In 2016, according to data compiled by Amnesty International, the government tally of non-Qatari deaths classified with unknown causes of death dropped dramatically, alongside a corresponding increase in deaths classified under circulatory diseases. “It’s bullshit, because it doesn’t mean anything if your heart stops and you stop breathing,” says Nicholas McGeehan, director of the human-rights research group FairSquare, who is considered perhaps the top analyst on migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf. “They have actively covered up the fact that they don’t know anything about these deaths.”

Amnesty has not received any clarity from Qatari government officials about the discrepancy between unknown causes and natural causes, but Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, says she raised the rise of “nonwork-related” deaths at a public forum with labor officials in Qatar last month and was brushed aside. “It’s an elaborate sham framework set up by the Qatari government to say our rates of suicide and worker deaths are the same as Northern Europe, which is bullshit,” Worden tells Rolling Stone. “Because if you weren’t building $220 billion worth of stadiums and infrastructure, you wouldn’t have that rate — there’s some propaganda happening.

“They didn’t investigate because they didn’t want to know the answer,” Worden continues. “If you don’t want to know you have a problem, you have a problem.”

Among its existing programs to enhance workers’ rights, the Qatari government has introduced several compensation systems of late, but rights groups say they only cover abuses since 2018 and remain narrow in both scope and implementation. Human Rights Watch interviewed multiple migrant workers for the World Cup sites who said they contemplated suicide while waiting in debt related to their work — while waiting in shame for delayed paychecks to arrive. Last week, Qatar’s labor minister rejected proposals for a sweeping compensation fund for the families of migrant workers who have died or been injured while working at World Cup sites as “duplicative,” accusing criticism of the government undercount as “racist” and “a publicity stunt.” The minister, Ali bin Samikh Al Marri, told the AFP that there was “no criteria to establish these funds,” and asked: “Where are the victims? Do you have names of the victims? How can you get these numbers?”

May Romanos, a leading researcher for Amnesty in the Gulf, found the minister’s rebuke tragically ironic.

“The government knows who’s being paid and who’s not,” Romanos tells Rolling Stone. “They know who are the victims and the violators. They have the numbers and the names. It’s a very weak excuse to avoid responsibility.”

FIFA’s human-rights policy claims the soccer mothership “is committed to contributing to providing remedy where individuals have been adversely affected by activities associated with FIFA.” The mother of Kripal Mandal’s five children, meanwhile, must regularly take one of them to the city for a blood transfusion and search for food on the way home. She helps take care of livestock, but she knows her husband’s money will never arrive. “Somehow,” she said through Human Rights Watch, “we are managing.”

In the decade leading up to the World Cup this month, the muzzle on Qatar’s migrant workforce has been lifted by the occasional producer from ESPN and HBO, or a relentless author from France. For their groundbreaking report, though, researchers at Equidem confidentially interviewed 60 migrants who worked in Qatar at all eight tournament stadiums, under the supervision of 16 construction firms. “If we protest, they threaten to cut our salaries or they fire us,” one of those workers told the rights group. “This is why no one protests. … They cover up instead by accusing the complainant.”

Anish Adhikari was the only one of the whistleblowers who put his face to the destitution: A few days after he began working for the royal-owned HBK, Adhikari told Equidem, he learned of a Bangladeshi colleague plummeting to his death from the fifth level of the championship stadium in Lusail. He began to check his suspension belt nervously while installing the A/C. Last year, Adhikari said, he learned of a Chinese worker at the venue falling nearly six stories when his belt gave way.

At 26 and back at home, Adhikari can still hear the fire alarms blaring in his head. He can still picture the view from the roof of his camp, such a short bus ride from the emptied-out stadium that he could see the yellow jackets of the FIFA inspectors who would never hear his voice. “I feel bad for not being able to raise the concerns,” he tells Rolling Stone. A fellow Nepali who built out the Lusail venue’s scaffolding also told Equidem researchers that when the royal-owned HBK learned of a scheduled FIFA visit, company officials bussed away migrants en masse, put on their Covid masks, and cleaned up the site of the World Cup final. An Indian stonecutter employed by HBK at Al Bayt Stadium, which will host the World Cup’s first match featuring the Qatari national team on Nov. 21, echoed their concerns, recalling to Equidem that company staff stood outside the venue’s gate when inspectors arrived and that HBK officials “gave us strict instructions that we should not go to the FIFA team with any complaints.”

anish adhikari qatar stadium world cup
Anish Adhikari with his family back in Nepal.

The complaints from World Cup construction workers were supposed to be submitted to Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, compared by some rights workers to an Olympic host city’s organizing committee, only with more heart than teeth. When the global union Building and Woodworkers’ International (BWI) was contracted for site inspections by the Supreme Committee in 2016, its independent observers were encouraged that the Qatari organizers had authority to record worker complaints and subsequently close unsafe construction sites — especially in a nation where labor organizing is illegal. But they found the Qatari labor ministry lacked the political will to further enforce reform upon abusive contractors, or even help open a migrant workers’ community center. (The Qatari government press office did not respond to requests for a response. The Supreme Committee, disputed the report’s findings and in its statement to Equidem, said that its enforcement capacity had led to more than 450 violations being reported to the ministry, followed by the watch-listing of more than 270 contractors, the demobilization of more than 70 contractors, and the blacklisting of seven. In its statement to Rolling Stone, FIFA cited BWI’s regular inspections and FIFA’s program for worker health and safety as “reaching the highest international standards.”)

That was before the stadiums were completed, but the horror stories continue: Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a nonprofit that tracks workers’ terms of employment, wage theft, living conditions, physical and verbal abuse by employers, and freedom of expression, tells Rolling Stone that it has recorded 133 cases of alleged labor abuse in Qatar in 2022 alone. This summer, BWI connected soccer players from progressive countries with migrant workers to hear of such conditions firsthand. On Thursday, however, FIFA’s top two officials sent a letter to the 32 competing nations, encouraging them to “focus on the football!” FIFA’s secretary general and its president, Gianni Infantino, who moved to Doha earlier this year, pleaded with the countries to “please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”

The world’s top footballers appear ready to utilize at least a television-viewer squint’s worth of their influence in fighting back. Officials from the English, Danish, German, Norwegian, and Swiss teams tell Rolling Stone their captains plan to wear “One Love” armbands on the pitch, and the manufacturer of Denmark’s jerseys has faded its logo in protest. Soccer federations of top national teams like England, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands responded that they would continue to push for reform and that human rights “apply everywhere.”

Adhikari, for his part, wants his heroes to speak out this month for incremental reform and overdue compensation — for the underpaid, the destitute, and the dead. “I’m a big fan of Lionel Messi, of players like Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo,” Adhikari says, a smile temporarily overcoming the fear on his face, of his $5,000 in debt and his mother’s failing health. “If they listen to the grief and pain of the workers like me and if they raise those concerns to the authorities like FIFA — if the star players did that, I’m hopeful that issues would be heard and there would be some sort of solution. I don’t have that big of a hope, though.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated with a statement from the Qatari government and to better reflect both the ownership of the Hamad Bin Khalid Contracting Co. and the observations of World Cup construction sites by independent inspectors from Building and Woodworkers’ International (BWI).

Best of Rolling Stone

Click here to read the full article.