A company owned by Qatar’s royal family has been accused of enforcing some of the “worst conditions” for migrant workers constructing FIFA World Cup stadiums and hiding mistreatment from the football authority’s inspectors.

The revelations are detailed in a wide-ranging report by labour rights organisation Equidem, which found construction companies are consistently dodging inspections introduced to improve working conditions.

Migrant workers have died, faced discrimination, wage theft, and dangerously unsafe working conditions while building infrastructure in Doha for the FIFA World Cup, set to begin on November 20.

The International Trade Union estimates almost 2 million workers have been employed to build seven stadiums, a new airport, a new metro system, new roads, and hotels for Qatar’s World Cup. 

There has been global outrage over the treatment of these migrant workers who are mainly from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines.

Fresh revelations have now emerged about Hamad Bin Khalid Contracting Company (HBK), which is owned by Qatar’s ruling family the House of Thani and was awarded several contracts to build World Cup stadiums. 

“Our report found that one of the largest companies involved in the construction of these stadiums is the HBK company and that is owned by the Qatar royal family,” Equidem’s Namrata Raju said.

“Some of the worst conditions that we found were actually in stadiums that were being constructed by this company.

“We found deliberately orchestrated situations where workers were pushed away from the moving eye of any FIFA inspection unit.”

HBK’s president, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was the ruling monarch or sheikh of Qatar until 2013 when he abdicated the throne and handed power over to his son. 

A man in a pinstripe suit holds up a gold trophy in one hand while gesturing in the other, while another man in a suit watches
Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani (left) was the sheikh of Qatar when FIFA announced the nation would host this year’s World Cup back in 2010.(Reuters: Christian Hartmann)

In 2010, during Sheikh Hamad’s reign, Qatar won the right to host the upcoming FIFA World Cup.

HBK did the enabling works including site clearance, excavation and foundations for the Al-Wakrah Stadium, where Australia will play its first matches.

Sheikh’s company found to have avoided inspections

In response to global outrage about exploitative working conditions and deaths of migrants employed to build World Cup infrastructure, FIFA and Qatar’s government established work site inspections in 2017.

The Equidem report has found that while these inspections occurred during the construction of some stadiums, HBK moved workers to different locations when those check-ups were planned. 

“Supervisors would hit us in front of other workers to pressure us to work faster and complete our work on time,” one Kenyan worker employed by HBK said.

“This physical abuse was never addressed. You could report but nothing would happen because the perpetrators were our supervisors.” 

Another Indian worker from an HBK construction site said conditions were improved when inspectors arrived on site. 

“A company staff member stood at the [Al Bayt] stadium gate and when the FIFA Supreme Committee people came, he would inform our supervisors,” he said.

“Company officials gave us strict instructions that we should not go to the FIFA team with any complaints. We were told that strict action would be taken against anyone who complains.”

Several other workers employed by HBK spoke of similar incidents.

A woman wearing a patterned top with yellow sleeves looks directly into camera. She wears a nose piercing
Namrata Raju says Equidem’s report found that HBK was among the worst offenders in terms of working conditions for migrant workers engaged to build World Cup infrastructure.(ABC News: Avani Dias)

“Some workers told us that the situation was such that they would put on the fire alarm so workers would think, ‘oh, this is either a drill, or there is actually a fire’,” Equidem’s Ms Raju said. 

“So they would go outside and then they would be promptly shoved into these vans, and then taken away to another worksite.

“They’re secreted away elsewhere because they want to shove all of these labour rights violations under the rug. 

“I don’t know how the world watching or the authorities involved, or FIFA, can look at this with a clean conscience and say that this was OK.”

HBK did not respond to the ABC’s request for comment.

Thousands of migrant workers are owed wages or compensation

Equidem’s report has also found that thousands of migrant workers are owed compensation for unpaid wages, illegal recruitment charges, and various other harms.

In 2015, Indian worker Ajit Kumar worked in Qatar for two years building a residential tower on The Pearl in Doha — an artificial island of hotels, apartments, luxury shopping and high-end restaurants.

Mr Kumar worked for a different company, Qatar Project Co (PLQ), which is not owned by the royal family. 

“There were so many projects under construction for the World Cup,” he told the ABC.

“The construction at our building project and other projects were going at high speed as work needed to be finished on time before 2022 so that the FIFA World Cup could take place.”

A man wearing a maroon collared shirt stands in a field, a tree and power tower in the background
Ajit Kumar says he has been waiting seven years for wages he is still owed.(ABC News: Som Patidar)

Mr Kumar has not been paid for a year’s worth of work, and has been waiting for seven years for that remuneration.

He was deported from Qatar after he and 70 other colleagues filed a case against his employer demanding they get paid.

“I did not feel good at all, I cried all the way back home,” he said. 

“I did not get my hard-earned money, I felt really bad … We were sent back forcefully.”

Mr Kumar said workers were also forced to labour in temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius for hours every day, without adequate support.

“There was too much heat, my shoes used to be filled with sweat, I was also always sweating,” he said.

“There was no electricity, no food, no transport. We had nothing.

“I used to sleep outside in the open. It was not allowed but I had no options as you cannot sleep inside without an air conditioner.

“I used to sleep outside on the ground, no bed, nothing at all.”

A piece of paper with a black and white photograph and an official seal on it
Ajit Kumar worked in Qatar for two years building a residential tower in Doha. (ABC News: Som Patidar)

Research published in the Cardiology Journal has concluded that there was a strong link between afternoon hot temperatures in Doha and cardiovascular disease deaths among 1,300 Nepalese workers studied over seven years. 

“Our study showed it’s extremely likely that most of these deaths are due to problems with the heart during the hot summer months and the fact that these workers kept working when they really shouldn’t be working in such hot temperatures,” the study’s co-author Professor Tord Kjellstrom said. 

The Qatari authorities maintain these deaths are because of other cardiovascular causes or “natural deaths”. 

In 2017, Qatar also introduced legislation preventing work between 11:30am and 3pm during the summer months, but temperatures still soar outside those hours. 

“The heart as well as [other] organs can be overstretched by the body’s reactions to the external heat, so it’s an acute effect,” Professor Kjellstrom said.

“It happens on the same day that they are working in the heat or during the night after. These workers just die.”

Former workers want recognition as World Cup gets underway

As the World Cup draws nearer, pressure is building on the Qatar government to improve its treatment of migrant workers.

In October, the Socceroos became the first World Cup team to launch a collective protest against Qatar’s human rights record, including the treatment of foreign workers and restrictions on LGBTQI people.

“This must include establishing a migrant resource centre, effective remedy for those who have been denied their rights, and the decriminalisation of all same-sex relationships,” the Australian players said.

Human rights groups are echoing those calls, saying once the World Cup is finished, more than 2 million migrant workers will still be employed in Qatar facing similar conditions.

“The workers who are currently there will face a lot of problems during the World Cup. The fans will get attention and they will be taken care of, but who will take care of the workers there?” Mr Kumar said.

“The Qatar government should make laws to ensure that workers get their wages on time, food on time, shelter, transport, medical [treatment] and good facilities. The workers should feel good there.

“Workers must not be made to work in poor conditions, they must not be forced to work entire days in full sun and heat. It must not happen.

“We worked day and night there so then fans can relax … I want to tell fans that if they are feeling good because of us, then we should also feel good.”