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For families whose loved ones died on the job in the pre-tournament construction boom, questions remain for Qatar and FIFA about who gets redress and who doesn’t

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Workers collect drinking water from a fountain in Doha on Nov. 8, less than two weeks before Qatar plays host to the 2022 World Cup. The Persian Gulf state says it's made reforms to protect the migrant labour force it's relied on to build World Cup venues. Many have died in workplace accidents or extreme heat.JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

When Tul Bahadur Gharti called his wife on May 28, 2020, as he did every day before his shift on a building site in Qatar, he seemed fine. Before hanging up, he promised Bipana, back in Nepal, that he would phone her again the following morning. He never did.

Mr. Gharti died overnight, of what his official death certificate would describe as “acute cardio respiratory failure due to natural causes.” His wife found out the next day, when a supervisor called her from Doha, the Qatari capital.

“I have cried many times,” she told Amnesty International, for a report on unexplained deaths of migrant workers in Qatar. “My husband was set on fire. I feel like I’m burning in oil.”

On the day Mr. Gharti died, the temperature in Doha reached 39 C, and never fell below 20. There were no restrictions on working outside at the time.

Qatar says that has changed, one of many reforms brought in amid intense scrutiny of conditions in the Persian Gulf country ahead of the 2022 FIFA soccer World Cup, which kicks off later this month. Officials in Doha argue that major improvements have been made both to worker safety and treatment, including the abolition of the kafala (sponsorship) system, which essentially indentured workers to their employer.

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Qatari Labour Minister Ali bin Sumikh al-Marri has touted the country's overhaul of worker protection rules.AL-WATAN DOHA/AFP via Getty Images

Thanks to these new rules, Qatar is far ahead of many of its neighbours when it comes to protecting its two-million-strong foreign work force, and efforts over the past decade have been lauded, including by the International Labour Organization. This month, the ILO said the reforms had “improved the working and living conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers.”

At the same time, however, the ILO, a UN body, warned that “more needs to be done to fully apply and enforce the labour reforms,” and workers have complained that changes are often not felt on the ground, particularly on projects unrelated to the World Cup.

And when it comes to compensating those who were injured or killed before these reforms came in (and in some cases, after), both Qatar and FIFA are coming up very short, according to rights groups, victims and the families of deceased workers.

“There is a slim window for FIFA and Qatari authorities to correct course and commit to remedying past abuses,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Unless FIFA and Qatar act, then the real ‘legacy’ of this tournament will be how FIFA, Qatar, and anyone profiting from this World Cup left families of thousands of migrant workers indebted after they died.”

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At top, workers remove scaffolding at a stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, in 2019; at bottom, fans of the German soccer team M'nchengladbach urge a World Cup boycott at a home game this past September, showing banners criticizing Qatari labour and human-rights policies.Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press; Bernd Thissen/dpa via AP

Part of the problem lies in how Qatar categorizes deaths. Many worker fatalities, like Mr. Gharti’s, are reported as being because of “natural causes.” This means families can often be denied compensation from employers or the Qatari authorities, and have little recourse to challenge the classification or request an autopsy.

According to Nepali government figures, in the decade from 2009 to 2019, more than 500 migrant workers died of heart attack or other cardiac arrest in Qatar. Another 114 are listed as dying of natural causes, while 119 were killed in what was categorized as “workplace accidents.”

Statistics from other countries that send large numbers of workers to Qatar show similar patterns. It was these figures that the Guardian newspaper used to estimate last year that some 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since the country was awarded the World Cup.

Officials in Doha pushed back hard against that report, saying it conflated natural causes with employment-related deaths, but advocates say it is Qatar’s own statistics that are misleading, and the Guardian figures did not include deaths of workers from the Philippines or Kenya, two big sources of migrant labour.

“Over the last decade, thousands of migrant workers have died suddenly and unexpectedly in Qatar, despite passing their mandatory medical tests before travelling to the country,” according to Amnesty.

“Yet despite clear evidence that heat stress has posed huge health risks to workers … it remains extremely difficult to know exactly how many people have died as a result of their working conditions,” Amnesty said. “This is because in most cases Qatari authorities do not investigate the underlying cause of their death.”

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A worker looks at a cruise ship in Doha that will be used as a hotel during the World Cup.Marko Djurica/Reuters

While some local governments provide compensation to the families of migrant workers, this is rarely sufficient to cover the cost of losing a major breadwinner, as well as the debt many incurred to recruiters before leaving for Qatar. In 2017, Doha introduced a Universal Reimbursement Scheme, requiring contractors to prove workers did not pay recruitment fees, or reimburse them if they did. As of December last year, some $31-million had been paid out as a result, but according to HRW, the plan only covers around 50,000 workers, “a fraction of the millions of migrant workers who are making the 2022 World Cup possible.”

Human-rights groups have launched a campaign in the final runup to the tournament – #PayUpFIFA – in an attempt to put pressure on the international football body to foot the bill for families and workers worse off as a result of the World Cup. “We recognize that progress has been made in strengthening protections for workers through the Qatar government’s labour reforms … however, for many workers these reforms came too late and have only been partially enforced,” 10 groups including Amnesty and HRW wrote in an open letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino.

“Critically, however, even if these reforms were now effectively implemented, this would not negate FIFA’s responsibilities and Qatar’s obligations to address and remedy past labour abuses,” the letter says.

The groups urged Qatari organizers and FIFA to reserve an amount “not less than the US$440-million prize money offered to teams participating in the World Cup,” which the letter noted was “just a small percentage” of FIFA’s anticipated US$6-billion revenues from the tournament.

In an interview with AFP this month, however, Qatari Labour Minister Ali bin Samikh Al Marri dismissed calls for a compensation fund as a “publicity stunt,” and said some critics were motivated by “racism.”

Meanwhile, after several World Cup teams criticized Qatar’s policies toward workers and LGBTQ people, Mr. Infantino urged participants not to “allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.” The tournament is just around the corner, he wrote in a letter leaked to multiple news organizations, “so, please let’s now focus on the football!”

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