Updated on June 1 with new comments from Nepal’s labor minister
Nepal’s Labor Minister has said the country’s embassy in Qatar has been “inundated” with requests for help from expats who wanted to return home after the earthquake last month, but were denied exit by their employers, according to a report in The Guardian newspaper.
In what appears to be an unusually candid series of remarks from a Nepali government official, minister Tek Bahadur Gurung is also quoted as saying that he has appealed, without success so far, to FIFA and sponsors of the World Cup to intervene in the situation.
After the earthquake on April 25, which killed more than 8,000, many of the 400,000-strong Nepali community in Qatar were desperate to make contact with loved ones back home, travel back to attend funerals or help their surviving relatives.
Under Qatar’s sponsorship system, an employee must receive formal permission from their sponsor to obtain an exit permit before they can leave the country.
The government in Kathmandu asked that Nepalis in Qatar be given special dispensation by their employers to travel during the time of crisis.
Amid rumors that some expats were being denied permission to leave Qatar by their sponsors, Qatar’s World Cup organizers said last week that its staff raised funds for the 500 Nepali workers deployed on World Cup related projects.
It added that it had helped dozens of expats travel back to Nepal:
“Every request by Nepali workers on (Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy) projects to return home in the aftermath of the earthquakes has been approved, with more than 60 workers having their airfare covered by the relevant contractor,” it said in a statement on May 21.
However, Gurung’s comments in The Guardian contradict this statement. He said that while some workers had been allowed to return home, “those on World Cup construction sites are not being allowed to leave because of the pressure to complete projects on time.”
He went on:
“There are far more than 500 Nepalese working on different World Cup construction sites, I can assure you. We have even offered to pay the air fare home for all our people building stadiums and involved in other projects, where companies are not willing, but not even this has made a difference. Our embassy in Doha has been inundated with requests for help from World Cup workers who are not allowed to leave.”
The Nepal Embassy in Doha could not be reached for confirmation on the number of workers who had been prevented from leaving Qatar.
A week after those comments were published, Gurung’s ministry backtracked, saying:
“The content of the news report does not reflect the spirit of the Minister of State, who had just appealed, in a good faith, all employers of Qatar to facilitate the return of the Nepali workers to join their family members in the country who have been victims of the recent earthquake . We have the report that the employers of Qatar have responded very positively to this matter and Nepali workers are being facilitated by their employers to return to Nepal.”
Gurung said Nepal’s government had been attempting, without success, to contact FIFA and its sponsors to ask them to put pressure on Qatar.
“Nothing will change for migrant workers until FIFA and its rich sponsors insist on it,” he was quoted as saying. “These are the people who are bringing the World Cup to Qatar. But we are a small, poor country and these powerful organizations are not interested in listening to us.”
The Nepali government has been in talks with Qatar for some time about improving conditions for its workers, many of whom are laborers working on the multitude of construction and infrastructure projects to ready the state to host the World Cup in late 2022.
Early last month during a state visit to Nepal, Qatar Labor Minister Abdullah bin Saleh Al Khulaifi was urged to improve labor conditions for the country’s workforce.
At the time, Nepali officials appealed for the introduction of better insurance policies for workers, to set up orientation sessions before Nepalis travel to Qatar and to require employers to pay the illegal commissions regularly demanded by manpower agencies.
Al Khulaifi reiterated that changes to the kafala sponsorship system were in the works, adding: “We need more migrant workers to build the 2022 World Cup infrastructures. But, we do not want to compromise on their health and safety.”
However, the promised reforms stopped short of getting rid of the controversial exit permit system and requirement for an employee to secure a no-objection certificate from their employer if they want to change jobs.
In over a year since the public statement, there is still no definitive timeline for when the changes will be brought in, although Al Kulaifi was quoted earlier this month as saying he was “hopeful” that reforms would be implemented before December this year.
An Amnesty International report published last week criticized Qatar for its failure to make progress on its promises, and some human rights groups called for World Cup sponsors to pressurize FIFA and Qatar to implement the changes quickly.
Meanwhile, in an apparent effort to shame some sponsors, activists have created a fake advertisement for Coca-Cola featuring the tag line, “Proudly supporting the human rights abuses of World Cup 2022.” It quickly went viral after appearing on Reddit.
While other sponsors such as Visa have said they are “troubled” by reports of the human rights situation in Qatar, Coca-Cola has not publicly criticized Qatar or FIFA:
“The Coca-Cola Company does not condone human rights abuses anywhere in the world. We know FIFA is working with Qatari authorities to address questions regarding specific labor and human rights issues. We expect FIFA to continue taking these matters seriously and to work toward further progress.
“We welcome constructive dialogue on human rights issues, and we will continue to work with many individuals, human rights organizations, sports groups, government officials and others to develop solutions and foster greater respect for human rights in sports and elsewhere,” it said in a statement.