Every day at 5pm, Samuel boards the company bus that takes him to his night shift as a guard at a luxury high-rise tower near Qatar’s capital, Doha. When his shift ends 12 hours later, he says he will have earned £9, just 75p an hour.
Samuel, who is from Uganda, says he almost never has a day off. “You have to tell lies, like ‘you are sick, you’re not feeling good’, so that you get a day off,” he says.
When football fans touch down in Qatar next year, security guards such as Samuel are some of the first people they are likely to meet – politely checking their bags at the airport, greeting them outside their hotels and patrolling the shopping centres, parks and stadiums.
As Samuel talks, the clanging of a construction site and the screaming engine of a supercar echo in the background. In the distance, illuminated by the lights on construction cranes, the Lusail Stadium is nearing completion. Next year, as 80,000 spectators fill the huge bowl-shaped arena to watch the World Cup final, they will rely on thousands of private security guards for the smooth running of the event.
Qatar recently boasted of introducing “comprehensive and long-lasting” labour reforms, including a new minimum wage, in response to widespread criticism of the state’s treatment of its vast low-wage workforce.
The UN’s International Labour Organization says that more than 400,000 workers will benefit from the new minimum wage and the Qatari authorities say 100,000 workers have changed jobs since the reforms were introduced.
Yet men like Samuel say they have yet to see the benefits. He says he is paid below the minimum wage, which is only £1 an hour plus food and board. Qatar’s labour reforms mean migrant workers are now able to change jobs without their employer’s permission, which they needed under the traditional kafala system, but in reality it does not appear to be that easy. “I’m working a 12-hour duty, I have no days off. How can I look for a job?” Samuel says.
In recent weeks, guards from two security companies have staged protests over their pay and conditions. One of the companies had supplied guards for the Fifa Club World Cup in February, according to the German broadcaster WDR. The Qatari authorities say they stepped in to resolve the disputes, but the incidents have exposed the gap between the promises of reform and the experience of some workers.
Qatar and Fifa are facing increasing calls from national football associations to step up their efforts to protect workers’ rights. Last week, six Nordic associations wrote to the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, urging him to ensure human rights are respected at “all facilities used before, during and after the World Cup”.
“It is a matter of utmost importance for the football community across the globe … that the theatre of the greatest dreams in football also can be the stage of human rights, respect and anti-discrimination,” the letter said.
The security guards employed directly at World Cup stadiums and venues may benefit from strict welfare standards imposed by the events’ organising committee, but thousands of people deployed at other sites across Qatar are more vulnerable to abuse.
Robert, a Kenyan guard on the same shift, says he earns even less than Samuel – just 65p an hour. His contract, seen by the Guardian, states he must work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. “I feel exhausted but if you ask for a day off they tell you ‘we will deduct it [from your salary] this month’,” he says.
I feel exhausted but if you ask for a day off, they tell you they will deduct pay from your salary
As demand for security guards in Qatar has grown, with more than 40,000 private security guards and 74 private security companies already operating in the Gulf state, more east and west African migrant workers have been recruited with the promise of secure jobs and lucrative salaries. Most hand over large fees to recruitment agents in their home countries to secure the jobs.
Once in Qatar, they say, the lie is exposed. “What you think [you are going to earn] is not what you find this side,” says Samuel, who paid an agent the equivalent of £1,500 for his job.
Workers say they often find themselves housed in cramped and squalid dorms, working long shifts with few days off and having to stand for hours in searing temperatures.
The Qatari government told the Guardian it had strengthened its ability to identify and punish companies that try to evade its labour laws, with more than 7,000 penalties issued to businesses for labour offences in the last quarter of 2020.
Some, like Robert, are willing to put up with the low wages and long hours. “Life here is difficult but if I stop working right now, who will assist my family back home? Nobody. So I have to work whatever,” he says. Samuel says when his contract ends he is going home and will never return to Qatar.
Samuel and Robert asked the Guardian not to use their real names for fear of repercussions. They have good reason to be afraid.
On 5 May, Malcolm Bidali, a Kenyan security guard and blogger who wrote about the plight of migrant workers, was detained by Qatar’s state security services. Human rights groups have said his detention may be linked to his articles about workers’ welfare, although the authorities stated that a Kenyan national was under investigation for violating security regulations.
For the past year, Bidali has documented the mistreatment, discrimination and humiliation he and his fellow migrant workers face, in a series of online articles under the pseudonym “Noah”. In one, he described his accommodation: “We were crammed, six of us, into a tiny room in a labour camp … Said room was characterised by bunk beds, mould and bedbugs … eight toilets for 72 of us on each floor.”
On Saturday, Bidali was charged with “offences related to payments received by a foreign agent for the creation and distribution of disinformation” in Qatar.
A spokesperson for Migrant-Rights.org, an organisation supporting worker’s rights in the Gulf, said none of Bidali’s writing can be considered “disinformation”.
“He was always nuanced and multi-layered, with the sole intent of improving conditions in Qatar – not maligning the country. These charges appear to serve to intimidate others who exercise their right to freedom of expression,” the spokesperson said.
James Lynch, a director at Fairsquare Projects, which advocates for worker’s rights, called the charges “very concerning.”
Lynch said, “Everything we have seen indicates that this is a case of a migrant worker freely expressing his opinions and being locked up as a result.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Qatari government said workers were “strongly encouraged to file complaints … if they believe a law has been broken. When reported to the authorities, most complaints are resolved in an efficient and timely manner.
“Achieving systemic change is a long-term process and shifting the behaviour of every company will take time. By strengthening its enforcement procedures, Qatar is winning the battle against companies that think they can bypass the rules.”