DOHA - It took less than a year for Murali Velayudhan's dream to shatter. The Indian construction worker came to Qatar in October last year, hoping to be one of thousands of migrant workers to benefit from a $200 billion building boom related to the country's hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup and other projects.
Landing in Doha, Velayudhan was aware that Qatar, like other Gulf Arab states, stood accused of encouraging modern slavery with its treatment of migrant workers prompting international outrage. But he was determined to save money for his family.
But six months later the 42-year-old was heading back to India with no money and a debt that will take him a lifetime to repay.
“It's a dream that became a nightmare,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as he departed from Doha International Airport with other co-workers who said they were abandoned by their employers without visas or salary.
Despite global pressure on Qatar to address reports of exploitative working conditions, 29,400 people, or 1.4 percent of Qatar's population, are estimated to be working as slaves, in forced labor or domestic servitude, a report said on Monday.
Only Mauritania, Uzbekistan and Haiti had a higher prevalence of slaves per head of population, according to the second annual Global Slavery Index by Walk Free Foundation, an Australian-based human rights group.
In the inaugural index last year, Qatar ranked 96th out of 160 countries surveyed for prevalence of modern slavery by percentage of the population. This year it was listed as the fourth worst country in a larger survey of 167 nations.
“Qatar's changed ranking reflects the fact that this year for the first time, we have survey data from returned Ethiopian and Nepali migrant workers,” said Fiona David, executive director of global research at Walk Free Foundation.
“We're aware there are estimates out there of even higher numbers in Qatar, and we feel that our numbers are likely to be a very conservative estimate,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Squalid living conditions
For decades, migrant workers largely from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines have come to the oil-rich Gulf to work as cheap laborers and domestic help.
More than 1.6 million foreign workers are employed in Qatar, where they outnumber the local workforce by nearly 20 to one, according to the Qatari ministry of labor and social affairs.
Walk Free Foundation says many are exploited by employers who can demand large recruitment fees, withhold pay, confiscate their passports and abuse them physically or sexually.
Being forced to work excessive hours in dangerous conditions and live in squalor were also counted as signs of slavery.
Large billboards reading “Qatar deserves the best” cover many construction sites, a few miles from where some World Cup stadiums are taking shape.
Tucked away on the outskirts of Doha, scores of hostels house thousands of workers, crammed into rooms of 8 meters (26 ft) by 8 meters. Described by rights groups and locals as “labor camps,” the accommodation is rundown with men sharing beds, bathrooms and cockroach-infested kitchens.
“This bed is all the space that I have for myself. I change my clothes, eat, sleep and even speak to my family with 10 men looking at me,” said Nawab Ansari, at a camp housing about a thousand workers in Doha's Sanayia industrial area.
Labor reform plans
Much of the pressure on Qatar to reform its labor laws and curb rights violations is focused on a sponsorship system known as “kafala” that the country - like most Gulf states - enforces on migrants.
Kafala requires migrant workers to seek permission from employers to change jobs. If permission is denied, they must leave the country. Passports of guest workers are held by the sponsor for the duration of their contracts.
Like other Gulf states, unions and labor protests are banned for migrant workers and authorities penalize any dissent with jail terms or immediate deportation.
The United Nations has asked Qatar to abolish the sponsorship system, which it says is a source of labor abuse.
In May, Qatar unveiled plans for labor reforms, including a new system based on employment contracts, after a review of its labor legislation by DLA Piper, a British-based law firm.
However no timetable was set and the reforms did not include setting a minimum wage, one of DLA Piper's recommendations.
The labor ministry said in a statement on Sunday that it was committed to improving conditions for workers and had already made changes such as increasing fines for employers who illegally hold employee passports, employing more labor inspectors and shutting down firms operating unsafe worksites.
A new sponsorship law to replace the kafala system would be announced next year, it added.
In an interview with CNN in September, Emir of Qatar, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani admitted there had been problems with labor laws in the past but said the laws had been changed.
“We're solving the problems ... We changed the laws. They are enforced and there are many laws that have been changed,” al-Thani told CNN.
World cup Scrutiny
Migrant workers report similar woes elsewhere in the Gulf as many countries expand infrastructure and diversify from oil.
For example, the United Arab Emirates is expected to spend billions of dollars on hosting the World Expo 2020 in Dubai.Saudi Arabia is building the one-kilometer high Kingdom Tower in Jeddah and developing large housing projects for its nationals.
But these countries are doing little to reform laws that marginalize and exploit migrant workers, rights groups said.
“Workers' rights are severely restricted across the region. The Gulf states all apply models of the Kafala [sponsorship] system, with some variations in how strictly it is implemented,” said James Lynch, Amnesty International's researcher on migrants' rights in the Gulf.
“But we assess Qatar against international standards and not in comparison to what other countries in the region are doing,” Lynch told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Qatar, as host of the 2022 World Cup, has drawn particular scrutiny in the region by foreign rights groups.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) said more than 1,200 workers have died since the World Cup was awarded in 2010 and projected another 4,000 could die without improvements.
Qatar authorities have denied these claims and accused foreign media of running a malicious campaign against the first Gulf nation to host a Soccer World Cup. Qatar also says none of the workers employed for World Cup projects have been exploited.
The country's World Cup organizing committee said criticism was a normal part of major sporting events.
“We extend a hand to all of our critics to come to Qatar and see for themselves the progress we are making in a number of fields, from stadium delivery to cooling technology, workers welfare to creating a sporting industry in the region,” it told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
Walk Free's David said: “While the construction issue has gotten a lot of airtime, quite rightly, the situation for domestic workers in Qatar is also quite frightening.”
“It's important to focus on the World Cup but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact there are also women working in private homes who are incredibly vulnerable to this kind of abuse.”
Senior officials in the government believe things are fast-changing and have promised to work towards radically overhauling the current system, giving workers the rights they deserve.
“We believe that the people helping us build our country deserve to be fairly paid, humanely treated and protected against exploitation. That is why we are reforming our labor laws and practices,” the Qatari labor ministry said in its statement.