Clad in long sleeves and fluorescent vests – their cause’s de facto emblem – the heat must’ve been unbearable. But that’s precisely why Qatar’s beleaguered workforce had risen in protest. Forced to toil in 45°C sun, sometimes with little water, and often with no guarantee of wages paid, they are the foot soldiers of the FIFA 2022 project. Qatari efforts to prepare for the football World Cup have come at a terrible cost: the exploitation, and even the lives, of thousands of labourers. But now, tentatively, some good news – the Gulf state’s divisive kafala laws, which prohibited staff from leaving without employer consent, have been scrapped.    

In a rare occurrence of industrial action, at least 5,000 disgruntled workers took to the emirate’s streets in early August. Poor living conditions, heinous work practices, and what some described as ‘inhuman’ treatment had driven them to mobilise – but it was the kafala arrangement that arguably cut deepest. 

Arabic for ‘sponsorship’, the system demands migrant workers obtain their companies’ permission before changing jobs – a condition that fosters abuse and exploitation, rights groups say. The regulation – which is common in Gulf states – was lifted on some foreign labourers last year, but only now has it been shelved altogether.        

Boasting of the country’s commitment to workers’ rights, Qatari leaders have heralded the move, framing it as part of their pledge to push through labour reforms prior to 2022. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), an agency of the UN, praised the country for “contributing to a more efficient and productive economy” – but not all are convinced. “The devil will be in the detail,” said Stephen Cockburn of Amnesty International, noting that the changes will have to be scrutinised closely before entering law early next year.

A construction boom has swept Qatar ahead of the tournament, fulfilled almost singularly by migrant workers. From Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan they’ve flocked to the tiny Arab state, swelling the 333,000 population to almost two million. A shot at grandstanding on the global stage is not to be missed, and Qataris want their nation to sparkle for its international audience. 

But for all the positive PR and investment opportunities the games may bring, Qatar is meteorologically ill-suited to host a worldwide sporting event. Already the schedule has been shunted from its typical summertime start date to November – an attempt to avoid the most oppressive heat. Likewise, stadiums have been outfitted with goliath cooling systems, designed to envelop spectators in a sweat-free bubble.

That these measures are necessary, none could dispute. Qatar sits at a critical intersection of geography, urbanisation, and climate change. The last century has seen average temperatures rise a seemingly small but utterly sweltering 2°C. So lethal is the heat that locally based US Air Force personnel are required to drink two bottles of water an hour, and work only in 20-minute intervals.

Qatar’s migrant muscle enjoy no such consideration. As the mercury approached 50°C this summer, construction projects reached their peak. For ten hours a day in some cases, workers slogged under the unforgiving sun. A 30-minute break might be offered to those on eight-or-more hour stretches, worker testimonies indicate – but often that time is cobbled on at their shift’s end. Worst still are the stories of dehydration. “Quench your thirst – safety first,” read the signs at building sites around Doha, but a chronic lack of clean water is widely reported. 

In an effort to protect labourers, authorities introduced working restrictions during the hottest part of the day. But research suggests that, even in hours outside the ban, potentially fatal temperatures are common. Hundreds of workers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, die every year. They suffer a range of ailments: skin allergies, headaches, altered vision, light-headedness, difficulty breathing – all are heat-related.

The majority of fatalities are attributed to cardiovascular issues and officially registered as non-work-related. This is fundamentally inaccurate, health experts say. A recent study by a group of climatologists and cardiologists – published in the Cardiology Journal – explored the link between Qatar’s intense climate and the deaths of 1,300 Nepali workers. Heatstroke was to blame, they concluded.

Still, in what critics say is a deeply cynical move, employers often refuse to pay compensation, which – under Qatari law – is optional with deaths deemed natural. The result is devastating: bereft families left traumatised and penniless. 

For those who escape with their health intact, the guarantee of prompt payment – if at all – is often wafer thin. Sweeping research by Amnesty found hundreds of labourers have been forced to return home empty-handed, unable to shoulder the costs required to take legal action against unscrupulous bosses. One man, Bijoy, waited three months before receiving a hearing date, by which time he had returned to India to care for his ailing father.

“I begged the chairman’s brother to give me even 4,000 riyals [around $1,100 – far less than the $3,750 he was owed]. He gave me 1,000 and my flight. I have to forget the money and go,” he said.  

Since the August protests, Qatari officials claim to be righting these wrongs, arresting employers who refuse to pay workers’ dues. They’ve also pledged to introduce a minimum wage. The precise figure is yet to be set, but a temporary measure affords staff a baseline of 750 riyals (around $200) per month. For the world’s richest per-capita nation, it’s a paltry sum.     

But from winning bid to stadium building, little seems fair about Qatar’s 2022 project. The World Cup will no doubt dazzle as it always does, but the terrible human toll must not be forgotten.