Necessary Labour, Unwanted Humans: Migrant workers and Qatar’s FIFA World Cup

Written by Fernando Hernandez, ACMS visiting student
Main photograph by Roshan Dadoo, maHp student intern

Some people are needed but undesirable. When ‘rich’ industrialised countries experience labour shortages, they turn to ‘poor’ developing countries and their people to fill these gaps. However, the presence of these foreigners is not expected to be anything more than a temporary stay as ‘guest’ workers, with their return back home being an essential part of the equation. While their labour is necessary, the workers – the humans doing the cleaning, the mining, and the fruit-picking – are not wanted, neither as neighbours nor fellow citizens.

This is the premise of The Workers Cup: Inside the Labor Camps of Qatar a Tournament for Workers, the documentary film screened at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS, Wits University) on the 24th of August. The screening was followed by a discussion with producer Ramzy Haddad and the Head of the Politics Department at the University of Witwatersrand Prof. Joel Quirk, who helped the audience of nearly 20 – made up of students, scholars and activists – unpack issues pertaining to precarious/exploitative migrant labour, as illustrated in the film.

Directed by Adam Sobel, the documentary centres on a handful of African and Asian migrant workers in Qatar – from among the 1.6 million that make up over 60% of the country’s population – recruited to build the infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup set to take place in the small Persian Gulf nation. The film follows the men employed by the Gulf Contracting Company (GCC); their lives at work and at the camps where they are housed – located nowhere near the sight of the local population because, as one of them put it “we do not want to disgust them”. Ironically, the main storyline revolves around their quest for victory of a football tournament organised for the men responsible for building the infrastructure for the World Cup.

Throughout the documentary, the men in the GCC team share with the audience their life stories, their ambitions, and the reasons for their labour migrancy. At the same time, we see them training for the games, cheering with their team through the victories, and disappointed when they eventually fail to make it to the final. The film captures the comradery and brotherhood that surge within the team despite the diverse backgrounds of the players – whose countries they call home include Ghana, Kenya, India, and Nepal – but at the same time reflects the conflicts and racial tensions that eventually surface.

The overarching theme, however, are the precarious conditions facing the people on whose backs the world’s biggest sporting competition is being built: dangerous working conditions, a hostile environment, poor housing, long hours, meagre salaries, and virtual control of the migrants’ fate by their employer. The latter is depicted in a scene where a man is in bed recovering after his roommate stabbed him, just so he could be sent back home.

The Workers Cup tournament came to these men’s lives as a breath of fresh air that allowed them to escape the monotonous lives that some have been living for years. Nonetheless, reality hits them hard at the end, after the champions are crowned and the distraction from their lives at the bottom of Qatari society is gone; all that is left are a couple of offensively small cash prizes and the celebratory confetti that the players/workers must clean themselves. Towards the end of the film, it becomes clear that the purpose of the Workers Cup was for the 24 participating companies to better present themselves and their employees’ ‘well-being’, amid the international outcry over the migrants’ working conditions. As team manager Calton said at the end of the film: “it’s not about the worker, it was never about the worker.”

Part of what makes the film special, is that the narrative is guided by the protagonists themselves. At no point in the film does the director appear interviewing any of the men. Haddad explained during the screening’s follow-up discussion that even in one of the scenes, they did not know what Padam – a young man from Nepal – was saying to his wife over the phone until the scene was translated. The storyline goes beyond simply portraying the men as victims of an oppressive system, by showing the complexities of their experience as migrant workers, including their own agency.

Although filmed under strictly controlled circumstances and with the access provided by GCC under a trust relationship, Haddad responded to Quirk during the Q&A by saying that despite the filmmakers’ limitations, unflattering questions were asked and tough issues addressed. While the film does not sugar-coat the conditions of GCC’s employment of migrant labour, it insists on its superiority by claiming that they are “one of the best companies”, regarding the workers’ welfare. In line with this, the filmmakers do a great job of reflecting the plethora of problematic issues that plague the life of migrant workers in Qatar. However, the documentary falls short of delving deeper into the institutional practices of the companies and how they contribute to the exploitation of these workers.

I believe that showcasing this film at the end of the ACMS course titled “Labour migration in a global and regional perspective”, was an effective way to cement what we learnt. It allowed me to critically analyse a different source – documentary film – of knowledge while putting a face on the people that we talked about during class.

About the author: Fernando Hernandez is a student with the European Master in Migration and Intercultural Relations program.