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The workers paying for Qatar's World Cup with their lives

All too often the excess baggage on Qatar Airways flights coming into Kathmandu is a coffin containing the body of a Nepalese labourer.

Tens of thousands of men from Nepal are working on World Cup-related construction projects in Doha. On average, one of them dies every other day.

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We spent four days in Kathmandu and during that time six bodies were repatriated from Qatar. We looked into one of the fatalities.

Twenty-seven-year-old Shiva Tamang had been run over by a bulldozer on a building site on 19 April. His body was flown home on 4 June.

Like Qatari Muslims, Nepalese Buddhists and Hindus try to bury their own before sunset on the day they die. The six-week delay in repatriation compounded the family’s grief.

Shiva Tamang's widow cries as her husband's coffin is pushed by trolley out of the airport. Credit: ITV News

His coffin was pushed out of Kathmandu airport laid across two baggage trolleys. Mina Tamang was there to meet it.

When Shiva Tamang left for Qatar six months ago Mina was his wife, today she’s his widow and the mother of a three-month-old son he never got to see and never will

As if one coffin on the Qatar Airways flights wasn’t enough, there were two more. Again, the bodies were those of young men. One had died in a road accident the other of sudden cardiac arrest.

The coffin of another dead Nepali construction worker waits outside Kathmandu airport. Credit: ITV News

The Nepalese Ministry of Labour says that last year 193 men died in Qatar. Welfare groups believe that 55% of deaths are caused by sudden heart failure. You and I might call that being worked to death under the desert sun.

Nepal’s Minister of Labour doesn’t. He says it’s an "orientation" problem. He told me that instances of cardiac arrest happened when men returned to their quarters after work and turned up the air-conditioning too high.

Read: Is Qatar doing enough to save migrant workers' lives?

An advocate for migrant workers told us a different story. She said the heart attacks were the result of dehydration. The labourers weren’t given enough water and wouldn’t buy their own.

Three and a half million Nepalese work abroad, mainly in the Gulf countries and Malaysia. The money they send home accounts for more than 30% of Nepal’s GDP.

27-year-old Shiva Tamang's coffin is prepared for cremation in a small room. Credit: ITV News

In a lengthy interview, the Minister of Labour would not criticise the Qataris. It’s a case of not biting the hand that feeds. So who is there to bring pressure to improve the lot of Nepalese workers building the dream for 2022?

Last year we were invited to Qatar to look at safety procedures on a construction site for a five-star hotel construction site and to see a new accommodation block being used by migrant workers. Not surprisingly, what we were shown looked good.

Migrant workers line up to get permits to travel. Credit: ITV News

Later, and on our own, we managed to visit older quarters occupied by Nepalese workers sleeping 18 to a small room. Conditions were grim.

These were images the Qataris did not want the world to see. Recently British journalists trying to get a similar glimpse were tailed, arrested and interrogated.

Workers at this crowded camp were sleeping 18 to a room. Credit: ITV News

The men we met on that investigative foray complained about poor treatment and rotten food. A Nepalese man we met in Kathmandu said food poisoning killed three or four workers in his company in Doha every month.

The man was one of hundreds queuing for the right paperwork to go back to the Middle East.

He told us he was coming to the end of his first holiday in three years. He said his house had been destroyed in the earthquake but that his employer had refused to release him. He was eventually allowed home on condition that he accompany a body on the journey.

Builders work on a construction site in Doha. Credit: Bernd von Jutrczenka/DPA

Nepal relies on work for its citizens in Qatar. So do the families of those workers. Welfare groups fear it’s been a recipe for negligence and abuse.

Last week Qatar issued a statement saying that significant progress was being made to improve the lives and labour conditions of guest workers.

It’s almost five years since Qatar was awarded the World Cup. So why is “significant progress” only being made now?

2022 will be Qatar's first major football tournament. Credit: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/DPA

It’s not fast enough – something the Nepalese are reminded of every other day.

Within an hour of repatriation, the remains of Shiva Tamang were taken to a Buddhist temple in Kathmandu for the funeral ceremony and cremation.

Shiva Tamang's coffin is cremated in Kathmandu. Credit: ITV News

As monks chanted his mother wailed and his widow passed out.

Qatar 2022 is now being investigated, but while the FBI and the Swiss are counting the alleged cost in bribes, Nepal is counting the actual cost in lives.

Qatar's Ministry of Labour has previously issued a statement labelling the figures as "simply incorrect".

The country was working to reform labour laws to try to improve living and pay conditions for foreign workers, the statement added.

Qatar’s rapid economic growth provides jobs for more than 1.5 million foreign workers. We believe that the people helping us build our country deserve to be fairly paid, humanely treated and protected against exploitation.

Many come from very poor countries, and the opportunity to work in Qatar makes an enormous difference to them and their families. Last year, more than $11 billion (£7bn) in wages was sent by migrant workers back to their home countries.

However, while the vast majority of workers in Qatar are fairly treated, we recognise that a minority are not. That is why we are reforming labour laws and practices, such as the kafala system, and introduced a wage protection system that ensures employees’ wages are electronically transferred to their bank accounts within seven days.

Companies who violate these rules face substantial fines and jail. It is illegal to withhold workers’ passports in Qatar and we recently increased fines to employers who do so, to 50,000 Riyals (£9,000). Qatar has also resolved to improve the living conditions of migrant workers.

New laws have increased the minimum accommodation space per worker by 50 per cent. We have improved health and safety requirements, including mandating the provision of a full-time, onsite nurse in every site that houses 100 workers or more; and we are constructing new, top quality housing for hundreds of thousands of workers.

Different statistics have been reported in relation to the death rate of migrant workers in Qatar and we welcome the opportunity to set the record straight on this point. Media reports claiming worker deaths on World Cup sites are simply incorrect. There have been no fatalities on World Cup project sites.

We understand we have much more to do, we have much to learn and we are determined to be a model for labour reform in the region. But we have resolved to deliver meaningful, positive change for the country of Qatar and for the people who are helping us build it, and we will.

– Ministry of Labour, Qatar