TWO COFFINS carrying bodies of migrant workers arrive every day in Kathmandu’s airport on average, and their deaths mean disaster for their families.
Purna Bahadur Budhathoki makes a solemn vow, as he recalls the 12-hour days, blistering temperatures and lack of drinking water on a construction site thousands of miles away in the Gulf.
‘I will never go back to Qatar,’ said the 29-year-old, now back home in Nepal.
‘So many young people leave the country for work but I just want to go back to my village.’
Like hundreds of thousands of his compatriots, Budhathoki was lured to the Gulf by the prospect of earning the kind of money he could only dream of in his impoverished homeland.
After stumping up 120,000 Nepali rupees (around $1,200) to a licensed employment agency, he landed a job as a bulldozer driver with a salary large enough to provide for his wife and four children.
But things started to go wrong soon after he began work on a building project in the capital Doha, when the construction company confiscated his passport and refused to issue a work permit.
When he spoke up, the manager of the firm threatened to have him beaten.
‘He ordered me to just shut up and work. I felt scared, and that I had no option but to get back to work,’ he said.
Around a million Nepalese work abroad, with Southeast Asia or the Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia a frequent destination.
But in recent years, there has been an explosion in the numbers heading to the tiny emirate of Qatar where a construction boom is gathering pace as it prepares to host the 2022 football World Cup.
The remittances go a long way in Nepal and there is no shortage of men willing to take out big loans for the airfare and other start-up costs.
The government in Kathmandu says there are around 300,000 Nepalese workers currently in Qatar.
But a recent report detailed how 44 Nepalese migrants died over the summer when temperatures can go beyond 50 degrees, highlighted the grim living conditions.
Days after his return, Budhathoki recounted how he and his colleagues would work from dawn to dusk, often without protective helmets or gloves.
They had to hide when police visited the site for ID inspections. He did not want the name of the construction site revealed.
Rameshwar Nepal, who recently carried out an investigation in Qatar for Amnesty International, described the working conditions as akin to ‘bonded labour’ with many labourers going for weeks without pay.
He said the biggest problems stemmed from the controversial Kafala system, in which workers are required to get permission to leave the company or go home and allows employers to confiscate their passports.
‘This is similar to the bonded labour because without the employers’ permission, workers can’t move to companies that paid them better.
‘We visited a camp in Doha where we found that about 50 labourers had been living without food for more than a week,’ he said.
‘The majority of the workers were Nepali who lived in crammed rooms, sleeping in bunk beds. There was no power, so the heat was unbearable.’
Budhathoki lived in a room measuring eight by ten feet with seven other men.
Their building ‘had cracks everywhere and felt like it could crumble any minute’.
Increasingly desperate, he finally managed to get help from Nepal’s embassy in Qatar, which pressured his employer to return his passport, allowing him to return home after five months.
The father of three young daughters and a nine year-old son is planning to head to his home village in Salyan, western Nepal, in the next few days – back to a life of toil on a farm but at least his own man.
Many others are not so fortunate.
When Dol Bahadur Khadka landed a job as a welder in Qatar his wife Durga Devi Khadka hoped it would be the family of seven’s passport out of poverty.
But when her husband fell to his death on a building site, she not only lost her husband but was also saddled with the cost of repaying the $1,200 loan which took him to the Gulf.
‘We have lost everything because he was our only hope for a better future,’ the 44-year-old said.
Durga Devi was one of Khadka’s two wives – polygamy is common in rural Nepal – and the family includes four teenage daughters and a 14-year-old boy.
Khadka who began his job in Qatar at the start of the year, had managed to send back around 13,000 rupees before his death.
Although Khadka’s employers did pay the family some 700,000 rupees in compensation, his widow says that money was almost entirely swallowed up by the costs of his repatriation and funeral.
‘He left home to support his family, hoping that life would get better and we would be able to pay for our children to be properly educated,’ she said.
‘We now work as daily wage labourers in the farms. It’s hard to earn a living.’
Qatar has registered a record number of injuries from falls by construction site workers despite pressure on the Gulf nation to improve safety as it pushes ahead with a 150 US billion dollar construction programme ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
‘They are reckoning that more than 1,000 workers were injured in falls last year; that’s very serious,’ says Fiona Murie, Occupational Safety and Health Director of the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI).
‘The problem in Qatar is that the workers don’t have rights to be involved in any prevention measures, they don’t have training, they don’t have the equipment,’she said from the global union federation headquarters in Switzerland.
Official data on injuries suffered by the migrant labourers toiling on Qatar’s construction sites is hard to find, but a doctor in the trauma centre of one of the country’s leading hospitals has said the number of workers treated for falls is up over 1,000 a year compared to an average of 600 in 2008.
‘Companies should take more interest in the safety of their workers,’ Dr Ahmad Zarour, Director of Trauma Critical Care at the Hamad General Hospital, told the Qatari newspaper The Peninsula recently.
‘The authorities must be strict on rules and regulations to force these companies to take all safety measures and make it obligatory at all construction sites.’
Dr Zarour told the paper that ten per cent of those injured in falls are facing permanent disability.
When contacted by Equal Times, Dr Zarour declined to comment further without consultation with the hospital authorities.
As Qatar steps up its massive pre-World Cup construction programme, there is mounting concern about the safety of the mainly Asian migrant workers who make up the vast bulk of the workforce on the country’s building sites.
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), has called Qatar a ‘21st-century slave state’ and warned that without improvements ‘more labourers will die during construction than the footballers who will step on the pitch.’
The trade union movement has been playing a leading role in raising awareness of the plight of migrants in Qatar, lobbying Qatari authorities, football’s governing body FIFA and companies seeking contracts to build World Cup infrastructure.
Migrant workers make up 99 per cent of the private sector workforce in Qatar.
Often they are underpaid and poorly housed, obliged to work long hours in blistering heat, and denied basic rights to change jobs or protest over their conditions. Many have their passports confiscated or are tricked into abusive contracts from which they cannot escape. Trade unions are not allowed.
Hundreds of thousands of extra workers are expected to pour into the country to build the stadia, roads, hotels and other infrastructure planned for the 2022 World Cup, increasing concerns about construction site safety.
The increased international spotlight on Qatar in the run to the World Cup has given the labour movement leverage to press for improvements.
Murie said BWI and the ITUC have been seeking to secure a broad charter on workers’ rights in Qatar that would include health and safety standards.
‘The big international contractors that will be working there and are already working there have got a very serious reputational risk that they are aware of, and they don’t want to be in a situation where there are going to be people killed,’ she said.
Qatar’s rate of five fatal work injuries per 100,000 employees is eight times higher than the level in the United Kingdom, and well above the US rate of 3.5 per 100,000 according the website Qatar Under Construction which monitors safety issue in the construction industry.
In the past three years, at least 44 Indian workers have died from falls and other construction accidents, according to local media reports quoted by the site.
In 2010, work accidents killed 19 Nepali workers according embassy data cited in a Human Rights Watch report last year. Dozens more died from heart attacks blamed on working conditions.
Workers complain that building sites lack proper safety equipment, that there is insufficient safety training or that instructions and warnings are often available only in English or Arabic which many migrants do not understand.
Facing growing international scrutiny, the Qatari authorities have promised tighter safety rules and are discussing a special code to guarantee conditions for workers employed on World Cup projects.
But campaigners are concerned that without proper monitoring and enforcement such codes would be toothless.
‘Qatar’s rulers asserted in 2010 that the country’s successful bid for the World Cup could inspire positive change and leave a huge legacy for the region, but the past two years have seen an absence of reform,’ Jan Egeland, Europe Director at Human Rights Watch told a news conference in Doha this month.
‘If this persists, the tournament threatens to turn Qatar into a crucible of exploitation and misery for the workers who will build it.’