‘Dark days in Qatar’: Nepali workers face bitter legacy of World Cup debts

On a huge billboard in front of Kathmandu’s international airport, is a picture of five migrant workers with the words: “Meet the hardest working team in Qatar. Wouldn’t it be great if they were compensated for it?”

Just metres away, hundreds of young men board flights to Qatar and other Gulf states every day, hoping to earn enough to look after the families they leave behind. About 400,000 Nepalis work in Qatar and many toiled for years on its preparations for the World Cup.

For some the deal has worked out. They earned a regular if low wage, which meant they could afford to send their children to better schools, buy land or rebuild their house. For others, the World Cup has left a bitter legacy.

Millions celebrated Argentina’s victory at the Lusail stadium on Sunday, but not Thagendra Adhikari. “The stadium is very beautiful. It’s well designed. But I have a lot of bad memories from there,” says Adhikari, who spent more than two years helping to construct the 80,000-seat arena. “Whenever I see that stadium on the screen, I feel bad. I was abused and exploited there. I, and many workers, received unfair wages. I love football, but I still can’t forget my dark days in Qatar.”

Adhikari says he was forced to pay 115,000 rupees (£715) to a recruitment agent in Nepal to secure his job, which left him mired in debt. He says the agent promised a salary of 1,200 rials (£270) a month but he was only paid 750 rials (£170), forcing him to put in countless hours of overtime to make up the difference.

“I like football, I’m a big Lionel Messi fan, but this World Cup hasn’t touched my heart because thousands of workers like me in Qatar were not treated well,” says Adhikari. “We workers have shed blood, sweat and tears to make the World Cup happen, but we weren’t paid properly for it.”

Naresh Shrestha, a construction manager who also worked on Lusail stadium, has a very different view. “I am proud that I was part of the construction of that iconic stadium. The Nepali team [of workers] did very well,” he says. “The World Cup has very much improved working conditions in Qatar. Some rules were changed to benefit workers. It’s very good now.”

But there is often a huge gap between the experience of skilled professionals like Shrestha, and low-wage workers like Bipin Magar*.

When Magar set out for Qatar in 2021, he expected to be there for at least two years. Already in debt in Nepal, he says he took out more loans to pay a recruitment agent about 135,000 rupees (£840) for the job in Qatar. He spent eight months working on Stadium 974, the temporary arena that won praise for its innovative design, before he was suddenly sent home. Thousands of other low-wage workers, like Magar, were sent back against their wishes, and often still in debt, as companies were ordered to wrap up construction projects before the start of the World Cup.

Another billboard in Kathmandu urges Fifa to pay up for worker abuses. Photograph: Amnesty International

Magar is caught in a spiral of debt, and has now returned to Qatar – once again paying his own way – in a desperate attempt to repay what he owes. He has bad recollections of his time working on the stadium. He says whenever the local World Cup organising committee came for inspections his employer would tell them not to say anything negative. Only the workers who were not likely to raise problems were put in front of the inspectors.

However, now back in Qatar, he is working on other constructions projects under far worse conditions. “We’ve had to work in extreme temperatures, but we didn’t have easy access to water. At first, I didn’t even have a bed or pillow. We would sleep on the floor. Workers like me have it tough,” says Magar.

Despite playing a part in constructing the stadiums, Magar found no joy in watching the matches. “My friends enjoyed the games, but I couldn’t. When you go through financial problems, it’s very difficult to be find happiness in this type of thing. I have my own problems to focus on,” he says. “Nothing works out as you expect here.”

* Name has been changed to protect his identity

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