By Pramod Acharya / openDemocracy
In mud and bamboo hut in Nepal’s southern plains, Ram Priya Ray, 63, shed tears. He was looking at the funeral photo of his son. He had been awake all night.
Ram Priya said he had been this way for more than a year now, haunted by memories and unable to sleep. “He was the only thread of hope,” he said. “How can we run our family now? We are ruined.”
Sanjib Ray had been a manual labourer on construction sites in Qatar. He had cleaned up the debris from newly built highways and filled construction equipment with fuels, lubricants, and chemicals. He had earned 1000 Qatari rials a month, around $275, and often worked overtime for a few rials more. He died at 28.
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None of Sanjib’s family is employed; they had all lived from the money he sent back home. His 18-year-old brother is searching for a job but hasn’t found one yet. “I have to look after my family now. I want to earn money. But who will offer me a job?” he said. “I’m not well educated. Previously, I thought of going for foreign employment. But I’m afraid after my brother’s demise.”
The family received 7,076 Qatari rials ($1,943) from the company in final settlement, along with a condolence letter saying it did its “best to save his life by extending all possible medical facilities.” But one of Sanjib’s co-workers said he was already dead when they found him. His body was discovered in bed, blood spilling from his nose and mouth. The death certificate states he died of “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and its complications”, a type of heart condition. It was declared a “natural death”.
Death in the service of prestige
By the time the winner is declared, Qatar will have spent an estimated $229 billion to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Much of that spending, made possible by the country’s oil wealth, has gone into building new infrastructure. State-of-art stadiums, a new metro, a new airport, luxury hotels, high-rise apartments, roads – these have all been built by the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have gone to work in Qatar since it was chosen in 2010 to host this year’s competition.
Many paid for their employment with their lives. The Guardian reported in February 2021 that at least 6,500 migrant workers had met their deaths in Qatar since construction began. That was nearly two years ago, and the number was thought to be an underestimate even then. The full death toll is now certainly higher.
Nepal alone has lost at least 2200 migrant workers in Qatar in the past 15 years, according to Nepal’s Foreign Employment Board. In that period, 716 workers were recorded as dying from heart attacks or cardiac arrest; 198 in traffic accidents; 198 from suicide; 183 in workplace accidents; 331 from ‘natural death’; and 576 from other causes.
Rajan Shrestha, the former executive director of the board, said the high death toll could be related to the environment and high temperature. “The climate in Gulf is not like in Nepal. It’s very difficult for workers to adapt,” he said. “We tried to make workers aware of the precarity of work. We have developed the pre-departure orientation curriculum. I hope it will bring changes.”
Anjali Shrestha, an officer at the board, said he’s surprised by the number of deaths of Nepali workers. “The workers go to work abroad proving themselves as ‘fit’ in pre-departure medical exam,” Anjali said. “I’m surprised what happens to them there within a very short period of time.”
Anjali also said the numbers, while staggering, are also likely an undercount because the board only tracks the deaths of workers whose families have applied for compensation. Not all are eligible. To be so, the deceased worker must have held a valid 2-year employment permit from the Department of Foreign Employment, and the death must have occurred within one year of the permit’s expiration date. If these conditions are met, the family of the deceased is eligible for 700,000 rupees ($5,350) in compensation money. Families may also be able to receive an additional 1,400,000 ($10,700) rupees from the Nepali insurance scheme for migrant workers if the worker dies within the insurance period.
Compensation from Qatar, meanwhile, is a distant dream in most cases. Families say the Nepali embassy in Qatar isn’t pro-active and that the deaths of migrant workers aren’t properly investigated. They can do little themselves. Without evidence or financial means, they are unable to pick a legal fight or put pressure on companies overseas.
Even after seven years of her husband’s death, Dhanakala Belbase, from western Nepal, still hasn’t gotten compensation from Qatar. The company paid to repatriate the body, but Belbase said she never received an explanation for how her husband died. “The company should at least do something for these children,” Dhanakala said. “The workers like my husband made Qatar rich and developed, but what do we get? Nothing.”
Her husband, Kashiram Belbase, had made plywood forms to contain the concrete being poured for the Doha Metro, a gleaming mass transit that now ferries fans to the stadiums. One evening in March 2015, after returning to the labour camp after a 13-hour day, he had dinner and went to bed, as usual. “At 12 o’clock, we suddenly woke up as Kashiram fiercely hit on the wall with his hands,” a campmate recalled. “We called him, saying ‘Kashiram, Kashiram’, but he didn’t speak. We called an ambulance. The ambulance took him to the hospital. The next day, we went to the hospital. We were told that he was no more.”
Kashiram’s death certificate says he died of “respiratory failure”. As with Sanjib Ray, it was declared a “natural death”. His wife said she finds that difficult to believe. “He was healthy, strong, and well-grown. He never fell sick at home,” Dhanakala said. “I’m confused about what happened to him.”
Kashiram was not a trained carpenter, and he found operating the machines and lifting the heavy wood in the searing heat challenging. But he had little choice. This was the only means he had of supporting his impoverished family. With an immense financial burden, he had left high school for foreign employment. He had wanted his children to grow up well-educated, and he wanted to build a home and open a business. But he died too soon.
Dhanakala now lives in a den-like rented room in southern Nepal. She is the sole caretaker of the family, earning 12,000 rupees a month ($93) working nine hours a day, six days a week at the local grocery store. There she cleans up and serves tea to staff. “Our financial situation was never better, but it has been destroyed since his death,” Dhanakala said. “Now I have trouble. I can’t provide the things the children ask for. I cannot spare time for them.”
The families who haven’t gotten compensation even after the death of their loved ones can be found across Nepal.
Risking it all in a bid to survive
Conversations with youths in Nepal make one thing clear. They are desperate, and even those who lost family members to foreign employment contemplate going abroad themselves.
Ram Kumar Rokka, 26, lost his dad in March 2020. “I’m sometimes afraid of facing a similar fate as my dad did,” he said. “But what can I do staying here? I can’t earn more money. I must go.”
Ram Kumar currently works as a construction labourer in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. He earns 900 rupees ($7) a day. With this money, he takes care of his grandfather, grandmother, and his own family with a four-year-old daughter. “It’s nothing to fulfil the necessities of my family,” he said. “I’m in trouble. But what can I do? Nobody helps us.”
His father, Dhan Bahadur Rokka, worked as a builder on various construction sites in Qatar, including a football stadium. He died at 43. His death was attributed to “acute heart failure due to natural cause,” but Ram Kumar has his doubts and could find no one who could explain the incident. He received 6080 Qatari rials ($1,670) in compensation, which were his father’s due salary, leave benefit, end-of-service benefit, and the cost of repatriation.
Ram Kumar said he is proud that his father worked to make the World Cup tournament possible, and he is planning to watch some of the games. But he has a message for the players: “You play well, but please do not forget the workers like my dad who dripped blood and sweat building the stadiums. Try to help us if you can.”