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As games draw to a close, plight of migrant workers has cast a shadow over World Cup

<i>Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images</i><br/>Workers seen during a tour at the construction site of the Al Bayt Stadium and the workers accommodation on January 9
Bongarts/Getty Images
Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images
Workers seen during a tour at the construction site of the Al Bayt Stadium and the workers accommodation on January 9

By Bethlehem Feleke and Larry Madowo, CNN

Boniface Barasa worked for three years as a construction worker in Qatar, but the life-long football fan now says he was so traumatized by the experience that he was torn about watching matches during the World Cup.

Barasa, 38, says he witnessed a co-worker die after collapsing from the extreme heat, which can get as high as 120 degrees. He suspects that person could have been dehydrated because of limited water breaks offered to workers.

CNN could not independently verify his claim.

He added: “I saw the supervisor call another Kenyan a lazy Black monkey. Then when the Kenyan asked him: ‘Why are you calling me a Black monkey?’ the supervisor slapped him,” Barasa, who worked on the Lusail stadium, told CNN.

His account echoes those of other foreign workers, mostly from South Asia and Africa, who’ve played a significant role in preparing the country for the World Cup.

Authorities have acknowledged hundreds of deaths in construction and related industries in the 13 years since FIFA awarded the tournament to the Gulf nation.

Two migrant workers have also died in unexplained circumstances during the tournament.

On December 10, 24-year-old Kenyan security guard John Njue Kibue fell from the eighth floor of Lusail stadium and died in the hospital, his family told CNN.

Another died at a resort used by Saudi Arabia during the group stages of the tournament.

Organizers say they are investigating Kibue’s death, which has renewed scrutiny of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers as the World Cup draws to a close.

Fighting for labor rights

While the investigation is underway, complaints from workers currently in Qatar continue, according to a campaigner for migrants’ rights based in Kenya, who says he receives thousands of messages from workers based in the Gulf region.

Geoffrey Owino, 40, says he worked as a safety officer in the country from 2018 until this past June, when Qatari authorities deported him.

He campaigned for migrants’ rights when he was there and continues to do so today.

Many of the complaints he receives range from withheld wages to physical assault, Owino told CNN.

Owino says he experienced firsthand the abuses that some migrant workers face when he worked in Qatar.

In his first week in 2018, he says he was pressured to sign an employment contract he had not read. He initially refused but eventually signed after thinking about the recruitment fee of $1,500 he had paid to an agent in Kenya to secure a job that promised $400 a month.

When he got there, he says he was only paid $200 a month and lived with seven other people in a room.

Owino says as a safety inspector he spoke up frequently about construction workers at Lusail stadium working in extreme temperatures. But he was ignored, he says, as officials rushed to finish the construction.

He said authorities detained him three times without giving him a reason and sent him to a deportation camp because he complained about the mistreatment of his fellow employees.

He says he contested deportation twice and was released. But after authorities detained him a third time, he says he gave up fighting and was expelled from the country.

CNN has contacted the Qatari government for comment on migrant working conditions in the country, as well as Owino’s claims but a Qatari government official previously told CNN that any claims workers were being “jailed or deported without explanation” were false.

Now back in Nairobi, Owino’s fight for fair treatment of migrants in Qatar has earned him the nickname “Mr. Labor” and Owino says he continues to help workers abroad and advocates for compensation from bodies such as FIFA for them.

The lure of opportunities abroad

Owino also works with Equidem, a human and labor rights organization, to document the experiences of workers who have returned to Kenya. He spends time in the Gachie neighborhood, on the outskirts of the capital Nairobi.

Once known for crime and gang violence, the low-income district has since become a prime target for recruiters promising lucrative opportunities in the Middle East.

The promises are seductive considering Kenya’s high unemployment rate, which at 5.7% is the highest in East Africa.

Equidem is investigating claims of mistreatment by current and former migrant workers across the Gulf but in a report last month focused on Qatar, Equidem revealed widespread violations including forced labor, unpaid wages, nationality-based discrimination, and systemic abuse in interviews with 60 migrant workers employed at the World Cup stadiums.

In a written response to the report, World Cup organizers said it was “rife with inaccuracies” and underscored the measures put in place to protect workers and the progress the country has made with the reforms, noting that “their commitment to ensuring the health, safety and dignity of workers” has been “steadfast” since construction began.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy went on to say that while “there is always room for improvement…. the report presents a completely unbalanced picture of the significant progress versus the inevitable challenges that remain,” adding: “We have always been transparent about our challenges and progress throughout our journey and maintain an open dialogue with all our stakeholders.”

Qatar’s World Cup Chief Hassan Al-Thawadi said in a British TV interview last month that between 400 and 500 migrant workers had died in their efforts to get the Gulf nation ready for the World Cup, which is a far greater figure than authorities had previously acknowledged. But he said only a handful of deaths were directly connected to the construction of stadiums.

Qatar has taken steps towards reform in response to criticism and signed an agreement with the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2017.

For example, it dismantled the state sponsorship system, known as the kafala, and gave workers the freedom to change jobs before the end of a contract without the consent of their employer.

It also became the first country in the region to introduce a non-discriminatory minimum wage and a policy requiring employers to pay workers on time. And it adopted a new health and safety and inspection policy.

Qatar has been lauded for the steps it took to better protect migrant workers. However, last month the ILO recognized that more needed be done as reports of vulnerable workers facing retaliation from employers and delayed wages persisted.

Internet fame for migrants

As the World Cup got underway, some Black migrant workers took on highly visible roles in a country where they are often invisible — part of the workforce but not society.

Kenyan Abubaker Abbas — aka “Metro man” — became a social media sensation for showing fans the route to the subway using a foam finger and a megaphone.

Tournament organizers elevated the 23-year-old Kenyan’s profile in an apparent bid to counter criticism about Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers.

He even came out on the pitch as a surprise guest before the highly anticipated England v US match, leading the packed stadium in chants of “Metro!”

Elsewhere in Doha, another Kenyan, Dennis Kamau, has also enjoyed internet fame as an enthusiastic traffic controller, dancing as he directs cars and pedestrians at the games.

However, the spectacle belies the grim reality for those working behind the scenes, says Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan migrant rights defender and former security guard in Qatar who tried to expose the working and living conditions endured by migrants.

He describes conditions in the metro station Abbas was directing fans to as appalling for migrant workers.

Bidali says Qatari authorities placed him in solitary confinement in 2021 after he campaigned for better conditions for migrant workers on social media.

The Qatari government charged him for allegedly taking money from “foreign agents” for his work with international NGOs and accused him of spreading disinformation online

After organizations like Amnesty International campaigned for his release, he was eventually freed. The traumatic ordeal prompted him to leave Qatar, he said.

Bidali says he worries about the fate of the workers in Qatar once the World Cup is over and the attention goes away. He fears the rights of workers will be limited without any accountability.

“As we speak, we still have people not getting paid, people are still living in cramped conditions, we have people still facing physical, verbal, sexual assault, discrimination, long working hours, and horrible working conditions,” Bidali said.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - Europe/Mideast/Africa

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