Dreams turn to dust

Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Qatar in recent years to work on giant construction schemes as it boosted its infrastructure for the ongoing football World Cup.

Drawn by the prospect of making more money than they could ever hope to at home, migrants make up nearly 90 per cent of Qatar's population of 2.8 million. Most come from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines.

But many of the migrants work under harsh conditions and do not return home alive.

Qatar has faced harsh criticism over the deaths, injuries and unpaid wages to foreign labourers.

In response, it introduced major reforms to improve workers' safety and punish employers who violate the rules. It also paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for lost wages and injuries.

But rights groups have said the changes were too little, too late.

As the World Cup takes place in Qatar, more than 6,500 migrant workers have died there since it won the right to host the football extravaganza 10 years ago, the Guardian revealed.

The New York Times quoted India's Foreign Ministry as saying that nearly 2,400 of its citizens died in Qatar between 2014 and 2021, without specifying what caused the deaths.

Mr Sravan Kalladi and his father Ramesh went to the Gulf state hoping to build a better life for themselves. But, after taking his father's body back home to Telangana, Mr Sravan never returned to Qatar.

The pair worked for the same company, building roads leading to the World Cup stadiums. But only Mr Sravan returned home.

After yet another long shift, his 50-year-old father collapsed and died at the camp where they lived.

"The day my father died, his chest pain had started when he was working," said Mr Sravan, 29. "We took him to the hospital. I told the doctors to try again and again to revive him."

The working conditions were "not good at all", added Mr Sravan, describing long working hours and underpaid overtime.

Mr Ramesh, a driver, "used to go to work at 3am and come back at 11pm".

The duo were among six to eight people living in a room at the camp where "even four people could not sit properly if they wanted to", said Mr Sravan. "We had to work in extreme weather conditions and the food we got was not good."

With only a month's salary as compensation from the company, an unfinished house now lies as a stark reminder of the family's unfulfilled dreams and crippled finances.

"We are part of the company when we are alive but not when we are dead," said Mr Sravan.

"We trusted them, that's why we left our homes and went to work for them, but they let us down."

Workers' deaths leave relatives with grief, debt and a deep and distressing uncertainty over the way they died and what they were owed.

For years, there was no system to investigate the deaths, rights groups said, with the toll obscured by official certificates attributing the deaths to natural causes.

Qatar has disputed the death toll, in part by insisting that work on infrastructure apart from World Cup stadiums was not related to the tournament.

Migrant workers played a central role in building the architecture of the World Cup - not just the stadiums but the roads leading to them, an extensive metro system and hotels for fans.

Mr Ramulu Maraveni, 51, from Shivangalapally village in Telengana, paved roads around the stadiums and collapsed while on the job. A Qatari death certificate cited the cause as "acute heart failure from natural causes".

Mr Ramulu worked gruelling hours as Qatar raced to prepare for the tournament, his wife Lavanya said. He had fainted a few weeks before his death and the doctor who examined him blamed it on low blood pressure, sending him back to work.

"It was hard work and continuous," said Ms Lavanya, who estimated her late husband's salary to be between US$500 (S$690) and US$600 a month. "But he continued to work for our children's future."

The construction company that had employed Mr Ramulu for 15 years sent his family a cheque for US$3,000 to cover back wages and other benefits, The Washington Post cited Ms Lavanya as saying.

AFP, Indo-Asian News Service

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