A group of young men jump to attention as Vishnukanth Thapar nonchalantly sweeps past to open the front door of the Career Wings travel agency. Seconds after stepping into a shabby, ground-floor office he stops at a wooden shrine adorned with Hindu deities, bowing his head and joining his hands to pay obeisance before the day’s work begins. There is a lot to be thankful for.
The men are summoned, gathering around a large wooden desk as they provide verbal CVs and contact details. Today’s offering includes eight bricklayers, three metal workers, six HGV drivers and a dozen labourers. As he busily scribbles notes, a bell rings on Thapar’s mobile, announcing the arrival of an email, which he flicks open with his finger. After reading it, he looks up to proclaim: “I need drivers and labourers. Who wants to go?” They all hold up their hands.
Behind the benign name and a misleading advertising hoarding offering services such as Tourist PR (sic) and luxury holidays, accompanied by eye-catching photographs of London and Sydney, Career Wings specialises in an altogether different form of foreign travel. And business has never been so brisk, driven by Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup, which has led to a construction boom and an unprecedented demand for labour in the Gulf state.
There are an estimated 1.8 million migrant workers already in Qatar, with 600,000 Indians and 500,000 Nepalese making up the largest number, followed by those from other south Asian countries. The gas-rich nation is spending about £400m a week on infrastructure projects, directly or indirectly related to football’s most prestigious tournament, and the demand for labour is expected to increase over the coming year as work intensifies.
It all represents rich pickings for the likes of Thapar, whose business forms part of a flourishing, pernicious chain that begins in remote villages in India and other south Asian countries and ends on the bustling hi-tech construction sites of Qatar. Human rights activists describe it as a form of “modern-day slavery”.
Located in Nawanshahr, in the north Indian state of Punjab, Career Wings is one of 150 unregistered recruitment agencies dominating the streets of the provincial town of almost 50,000 people. Middlemen often bring in potential workers from surrounding villages. Once recruiters like Thapar have taken their details, they are referred to registered agents in the city of Jalandhar nearby, who make the final arrangements and award the jobs.
Thapar demands £100 from each worker who secures a job through the agency he deals with in Jalandhar, which provides him with daily updates on the types of workers it requires. Village recruiters usually charge about £50. The main agencies demand between £400 and £800. The result is that workers can end up paying up to £1,000 or more in illegal commissions.
Foreign labourers walk back to their compound.
Foreign labourers walk back to their compound after finishing work in Doha’s southern suburbs. Photograph: Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images
“I don’t care what happens to them once they get to Qatar,” Thapar says dismissively. “I just send them to the big agents in Jalandhar. I just feed the monster.”
The treatment of migrant World Cup workers in Qatar returns to the spotlight this week when the International Labour Organisation debates proposals at its annual meeting in Geneva to force the country to implement labour reforms or face a commission of inquiry. This is the highest sanction of the UN agency, which is made up of trade unions, employers’ groups and government representatives from 187 member states, including Qatar, India and other south Asia nations. Central to the demands for the inquiry is the recruitment process.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, whose members sit on the ILO, said: “It is highly exploitative. Laws are not being enforced and nobody is policing the system. Those involved are making a fortune at the expense of the workers. We demand an inquiry because we believe that Qatar is not serious about addressing how migrant workers are treated in recruitment and other key areas.”
Indian law states that only registered agents can recruit workers for jobs abroad and the maximum commission they can charge is £250 or the equivalent of 45 days’ salary (whichever is less).
They are also not allowed to use unlicensed sub-agents, such as Thapar. All workers have to be provided with contracts before departure and agents also have to ensure that employers adhere to the stipulated pay and conditions.
For those hoping to go to Qatar, there is little awareness of their rights or knowledge about the 2022 World Cup. They are motivated by a golden opportunity to improve their lives by significantly increasing their pay.
In the village of Langroya, 10 minutes away from Nawanshahr, Arvinder Kumar, 25, is one of scores of young men eager to go to Qatar. He now earns £50 a month as a plumber and has been offered work by a recruitment agency promising him more than £350 a month. In return, it is demanding £500 commission.
Kumar is well aware of the pitfalls. His cousin Jaswinder recently returned after two years in Qatar. A qualified electrician, his contract said he would be paid £400 a month but he received just over half that. He stayed because he had a loan to pay off and because his salary was still six times more than what he earned in India.
Langroya and other villages across Punjab, a state that provides some of the largest numbers of migrant workers to the Gulf region, are awash with similar stories of workers being exploited by agents at home and employers in Qatar and its neighbouring countries.
“We all know that we are going to be cheated. First in India and then when we go abroad, so it doesn’t matter what the law states because it won’t make any difference. I don’t know anything about the World Cup or football, I just know that there is work in Qatar,” said Kumar. “But we are promised one thing and then get something completely different. Ultimately, it’s just a question of fate and luck.”