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World Cup workers face alleged unfair working conditions despite Qatar promises

Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- As the World Cup matches are underway, human rights activists and others have been protesting the games and Qatar officials over what they say are human rights issues for the hundreds of workers who have been on the ground for the last couple of months.

According to some activists, everyone from construction workers to hotel employees has been allegedly forced to work long hours in the heat with little pay and, in some cases, subtle threats.

Grant Wahl, a longtime sports journalist who has covered soccer for various outlets, including Sports Illustrated, investigated some of these allegations and reported that many workers face unfair conditions.

Wahl, who hosts the podcast "Fútbol with Grant Wahl," spoke with ABC News' "Start Here" Monday about what he found when he arrived in Qatar.

START HERE: Grant, unlike a lot of journalists who flew to Qatar last week, you spent time there earlier this year amid these construction projects. Why were you going to look at a bunch of empty stadiums and hotels?

GRANT WAHL: I knew I was going to go to the World Cup, come here and cover.. focusing entirely on the soccer once the tournament started. But before that, I wanted to do a story and do some actual reporting on the topic of migrant workers in Qatar. Nearly 90% of the workforce in Qatar is not Qatari. They're coming from East Africa, West Africa, the Indian subcontinent [and] the Far East. And they're taking on jobs of construction, working in domestic situations and houses, hotel workers [and] all sorts of things that migrant workers are doing in Qatar. But the history is that they're not paid well. They're not treated well. A lot of people have died.

Human rights organizations who study this stuff very closely say that the Qataris really don't care, and they've shown they don't care by [not] trying to find out actual reasons people have died. The vast majority of deaths are just classified as natural causes. But, obviously, there's a tremendous amount of heat in Qatar year-round.

There are a lot of deaths of migrant workers that have taken place due to the heat and the body's responses to that.

New laws have been passed by the Qatari government under pressure. They were announced in 2019 and the Qatari government made a lot of fanfare about it, saying we have ended this ‘kafala’ system in which employers are allowed to keep the passports of their migrant workers and essentially preventing them from leaving the country, even if they're being treated badly. So there was a minimum wage established.

It was no longer allowed for workers to pay recruitment fees, either in their country or in Qatar to get to Qatar and get a job there. After these new laws were announced, workers were allowed for the first time to choose to change jobs within Qatar without having to leave the country and come back.

But what I was doing on the ground; I decided I was going to go to 14 FIFA hotels, and I was going to speak to at least one worker at each FIFA hotel and give them anonymity, and really find out what their experience has been like and whether these laws have been followed on the ground in Qatar.

A pattern quickly emerged as I talked to more and more workers, and I talked to nearly two dozen at all of these 14 different FIFA hotels, which is that a lot of these new laws are not being followed. Some of the workers that I spoke to didn't have their passports.

START HERE: They hold on to your passport as if to be like 'follow what we're telling you to do or else you don't get home'? Is that the implication there?

WAHL: Correct. You literally cannot leave the country if you don't have your passport, and so there's an element of freedom attached to that.

A bunch, including someone at the hotel where the U.S. team is staying in Qatar, told me that they had to pay big recruitment fees to come to the country, which puts them in debt from the moment they get there. One thing that did appear to be being followed was the new minimum wage, which I thought was interesting. But keep in mind, the new minimum wage is about $1.25 an hour.

START HERE: But the question then is…what is the responsibility of everyone who’s participating? The U.S. actually held a nice friendly game with some migrant workers the other day almost to say “we see you, folks,” but what about all of us back home? I’ve seen people contemplating whether to boycott these games. Do you think people will connect the dots with, between these issues they hear about in the news and the game they love on their screen?

WAHL: So the U.S. English language broadcaster of this World Cup is Fox Sports and they have said publicly we are not going to cover any of these so-called controversial issues like the migrant worker situation in Qatar or LGBTQ rights or women's rights, which are all things that U.S. soccer, by the way, is educating its players on and taking time to look into and a lot of other journalistic outlets are discussing. And so Fox has decided not just for this World Cup, but previously when the World Cup was in Russia in 2018, that they were not going to touch this. And that's certainly a decision they've made.

If people, fans, in the U.S. decide they want to boycott the World Cup and not watch it, I understand that.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.


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