A Football Tournament for Migrant Laborers
A new documentary offers an inside look at the Workers Cup in Qatar, and the controversy surrounding its participating players.
The Workers Cup focuses on the migrant workers employed to build the stadia and infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Without sounding cliché, there are people who come to Qatar thinking they are going to realise a dream. One, Kenneth Amissah, came thinking he’d be able to play for a football club while working, and that scouts from professional clubs would be watching him. He paid an agent $1,500 to get him to Qatar. When arrived there was a job, but no club, no scouts, no dreams coming true.
One startling aspect of the film is the level of access afforded to its creators. With questions to answer regarding the abuse of human rights and working conditions in Qatar, being able to film inside the camps seems quite the coup.
‘We were pretty amazed by the level of access,’ explains director Adam Sobel. ‘We were all living in Qatar at the time so we were kind of insiders working as journalists. We’d been asked to cover various stories about migrant workers in Qatar for other organisations, but those stories tend to involve a degree of working undercover and masking identities which meant that they could lose their human touch. There was definitely scepticism early on from the workers but after a couple of months they began to open up more.’
Now Kenneth is in Qatar and contracted to a company that employs him, he is locked in. According to the documentary, ‘Once a worker arrives in Qatar, his residence permit is controlled by his company. He cannot change jobs, quit his job, nor leave the country without his company’s permission.’
Many work seven days a week for at least 12 hours per day. They are legally entitled to one day a week off but that rarely happens. A worker can’t get a visa for their wife unless they earn $2750 per month, more than ten times what most are paid. According to the film, as of 2017, there are 1.6 million migrant workers living in Qatar, making up 60% of the country’s population. Half of these workers live in the camps for the Qatar World Cup.
The vast majority of this workforce are paid $200 per month, in what is officially the richest country in the world.
The workers openly talk about freedom, democracy, the right to expression and emancipating yourself from mental slavery: ‘On our site we are not allowed in the mall when it is open. We don’t want to be a disturbance or disgust them.’
One worker even resorts to stabbing his room mate in the leg, so that his employers report him to the police and they send him back home to Bangladesh. His victim doesn’t even seem that angry, just understanding of the plight he was in and accepting of the fact that he helped get him home.
But while to many watching, the situation presented to them seems horrendous, nothing is legally wrong. Sobel explains, ‘This film is not an exposé. We just wanted to humanise a story. It’s important to state that no laws are being broken and that everything meets the state standards. There are people fairly high up in the construction companies that also want the situation to change, but who are part of the system.’
The Workers Cup tournament is, on the one hand, a faux display of empathy and care, the organisers of the World Cup inviting companies to play in a tournament for the workers. According to the organisers, they are ‘keen to make the workers part of this World Cup. This tournament demonstrates how much we care about corporate social responsibility.’ For Kenneth, suddenly the hope of scouts coming to watch can be a reality. In truth, the Workers Cup is a charade. Something to convince the wider world there is compassion in the camps.
That said, a unsettling paradox emerges. Sobel says, ‘You can’t deny what’s happening isn’t an exploitation of expectations, but the opposite to that is that you can’t deny this tournament wasn’t loved as an experience by the players. It worked on two levels. It made them feel special to have a camera crew around, it gave themselves a sense of empowerment, and it also broke up their working routine.’
Kenneth is captain for GCC (Gulf Contracting Company), one of 24 companies playing. GCC’s first game sees its General Manager Grahame McCaig come to watch, with squad members desperate to impress him. They discuss impressing their management and sponsors, despite their treatment. McCaig is fine with the subsequent 5–1 defeat, and why would he care about the result? His players are distraught because they think they’ve lost an opportunity to get out of this system, while he knows they’ve spent 90 minutes thinking positively, rather than returning to their labour.
The film displays a depressing paradox. Playing football gives these men utter joy, which as an outsider you are willing them to have, but you know it makes no difference to their welfare. When Kenneth asks McCaig for a week off to train for the next game, the utter resentment he receives is heartbreaking, if not unsurprising.
The team’s aim is not to help players on their next step in finding a professional football club, it is to promote the perceived welfare of the workers. If a Nepalese newspaper prints a story about the GCC team — with a number of Nepalese workers in its team — winning games, then agents working in Nepal are more likely to send new workers their way rather than to a rival company. More workers doing more work for a pittance means greater profit margins for GCC.
GCC are not alone in this, they are one example of a system, bringing people to their knees in order to fulfil their drive for profit. One where the footballing elite will arrive to play out a tournament built by ‘modern slaves’ who would have to work for 125 years to earn what some of these players take home in a week.
According to Sobel, it’s important to understand the local viewpoint of this situation, about how the outside world views Qatar’s World Cup bid success. ‘The general consensus around the media coverage is that this is a western conspiracy.’ He continues, ‘Workers in Qatar are subjected to the same labour laws that go across the Gulf in a variety of industries, they are simply different to our own. Their argument would be that the western world was built through far worse means. There’s certainly some truth to that. It doesn’t stop you feeling upset about what you see though.’
One scene that follows the team’s tournament exit is particularly agonising. Sebastian, a low-to-middle management figure who manages the team, and who for the majority of the film comes across as a yes man for GCC, opens up. Having lost the semi-final, and with some in-house bickering, he addresses them: ‘Here it is hell. It is a country for the rich people. When we started this I thought they want to boost the game in Qatar and those participating. It is just mockery. Doing some article to show the white people we are doing great here? They have big pressure, because they are abusing people here. We are humans. We have rights. We have to think like that if we want get up in life.’
When talking openly about friends that have died during construction and their time in Qatar, one friend says, ‘There’s one saying I recall. “Your wealth, riches, beauty and even mind will all one day fade away. This beautiful body will decompose in the soil. But the soil will always be alive.” After I heard this I found a place to put my sorrows that I’ve met in my life.’
Whether you believe in souls or not is irrelevant, it is simply one man’s way of coping with the awful situation he is in, something millions of others must do on a daily basis until FIFA roll into town to pat themselves on the back for bringing the World Cup to the Gulf for the first time.
Fittingly, the final of the Workers Cup was won by a team of fielded players who clearly weren’t workers; ‘Arab men who look healthy and well fed’. A corrupt win, in a corrupt facade, for a corrupt tournament, selected by corrupt means.
In a situation where the lines between black and white regularly fade into carious shade of grey, Sodel and has team are clear in what they have achieved. ‘Our intention was to make a film the workers would have been proud of. We watched it with them and they loved it.’