Qatar has since made changes to the ‘kafala’ sponsorship system, allowing workers to change jobs or leave the country without their employer’s permission. But human rights groups continue to question whether these changes are implemented or are just window dressing for the World Cup. Reportedly, more than 6,500 migrant workers have died since it was named as the host. It’s difficult to know how much better it is now than it was when we lived there, and I don’t doubt that many senior Qataris really do want to bring change and improvement, but too many reports of abuse still abound, and perhaps international events organisers need to acknowledge this.
We saw men, when we lived there, without safety apparatus, in blistering temperatures, who were building shining new towers. And every day I worked alongside scuttling, apologetic women who wiped the blackboards, scrubbed the corridor floors of sand, cleaned the toilets and rarely spoke.
Maria was one of the latter, a young Sri Lankan employed by QU, through one of the many labour agencies. One hot day, she saw me struggling with books and, in perfect English, offered to help. She refused the money that I offered her in thanks, but instead was waiting at the end of my class with an old umbrella that she insisted on using to shade me as I walked across the courtyard. The pale blue umbrella became a sanctuary for brief, surreptitious conversations, stolen in moments between buildings.
Friendship, or even chatting, between academics and domestic staff was strongly discouraged. But this was an acceptable reason for us to be together: my white freckled skin was seen as too delicate for the climate and my colleagues approved of this use of Maria’s time. She was just out of her teens, an orphan, raised by Roman Catholic nuns in Colombo.
Alan and I invited her to our home for a meal but found this logistically difficult. She arrived straight from work, but then had less than half an hour before her curfew, most of which was spent trying to drive her through Doha’s chaotic traffic in time. We visited her accommodation. Her home was a dilapidated shack with no air con. Ten adult women shared one room, and another smaller one housed a further eight. There was one toilet and one water tap, for all of them. The building was surrounded by metal gates and, at 8pm, the sponsor counted them and locked them in so he could be sure they didn’t get into trouble during the night.
Any attempts to help, just hindered. My husband took out cold drinks for the Indian labourers in our compound, as they worked on precarious scaffolding, under the hellish sun. As a result, we woke every morning to a scrubbed driveway, the only one on the compound. All we had done was add to their seemingly endless tasks.
After their shifts, in fading light, we saw those same workmen feeding the dozens of stray cats that haunted our compound, with scraps from their meagre packed meals. By the end of our year in Qatar, we had rescued and re-homed half a dozen or so of those cats and adopted two. Partly to save them from the worst of deaths, where cats and dogs were, at times, abandoned in the desert without food or water if they proved too much of a nuisance, and partly because the construction workers brought a box of newly born kittens to our door, and asked us to help them.