NEW DELHI: The Nepalese government has revealed that Nepalese workers building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar have been denied leave to attend funerals or visit relatives following the devastating earthquake that killed over 8000 people.

The fact prompted the government of Nepal, for the first time, to criticize the Fifa, world football’s governing body and its commercial partners. The Nepal government called on Qatar to improve conditions for the 1.5 million migrants employed in the country working on World Cup infrastructure.

“After the earthquake of 25 April, we requested all companies in Qatar to give their Nepalese workers special leave and pay for their air fare home. While workers in some sectors of the economy have been given this, those on World Cup construction sites are not being allowed to leave because of the pressure to complete projects on time,” Tek Bahadur Gurung, Nepal’s labour minister said (as quoted in The Guardian). “They have lost relatives and their homes and are enduring very difficult conditions in Qatar. This is adding to their suffering.”

Gurung said Nepal’s government had been attempting, without success, to contact Fifa and its sponsors to ask them to be more robust with Qatar. “Nothing will change for migrant workers until Fifa and its rich sponsors insist on it. These are the people who are bringing the World Cup to Qatar. But we are a small, poor country and these powerful organisations are not interested in listening to us” (as quoted in The Guardian).

Of the 1.5 million migrant workers in Qatar, about 400,000 are from Nepal with the remaining numbers largely from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Qatar has come under criticism for its treatment of migrant workers, prompting in turn criticism on the country winning the bid to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup. A few days ago, Amnesty International accused Qatar of failing migrant workers and “promising little and delivering less” in the way of meaningful reform.

The Citizen had run a series of reports on the condition of migrant labours working in Nepal. Figures from 2014 indicate that more than 450 Indian migrant workers have died according to figures received via a Right to Information request. Another report released by the human rights organisation Pravasi Nepali Co-ordination Committee states that over 400 Nepalese migrant workers have lost their lives at tournament building sites.

The statistics have prompted analysts to warn that the death toll in connection with preparations for the World Cup in Qatar could cross 4000 by 2022.

Qatar has a Kafala employment system, under which migrant workers are tied to their “sponsor” employers, with many describing the arrangement as akin to neo feudalism. The infrastructure demands are monumental. Nine football stadiums are being built from scratch and three of the existing arenas are being renovated. The road and transport network needs to be expanded, accommodation built, and drinking water supply provided.

German FIFA executive, Theo Zwanzinger, admitted to the European Parliament that the conditions for workers in Qatar were “absolutely unacceptable” but defended the decision to award the tournament to the gulf state by saying, “This feudal system existed [in Qatar] before the World Cup. What do you expect of a football organisation? Fifa is not the lawmaker in Qatar."

The pressure did lead Qatari authorities to publish a workers’ charter developed along with the International Labour Organisation. The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee states that the charter includes more detailed measures on worker’s wages and accommodation compared to a guideline issued last year. The Qatari government also sent a letter to the European Parliament stating that about 2500 companies had been blacklisted for inadequate labour market and employment practices.

However, these measures have done little to assuage international concern with critics stating that the new charter continues to deprive workers of fundamental rights and will not be able to address the rising death toll at construction sites. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation said, “Forced labour continues in Qatar today with no workers’ rights. No migrant worker can be protected by any safety standard unless they have the right to collectively speak out about wages and conditions at work.. Not a single change has been made or recommended to Qatar’s laws that deny workers their fundamental rights. No workplace voice or representative is allowed for migrant workers in Qatar. A worker welfare officer appointed by the employer is no substitute for a duly nominated worker representative.” Burrow added that, “the new charter from World Cup organisers in Qatar sets out sham conditions, without even any means to ensure that companies comply."

In fact, more than a year after Qatar’s government promised limited reforms to improve migrant labour rights, hopes of true progress are fading fast, says Amnesty International in a new briefing published May 20. he briefing, Promising little, delivering less: Qatar and migrant labour abuse ahead of the 2022 Football World Cup, features a ‘scorecard’ that rates the authorities’ response to nine fundamental migrant labour rights issues identified by Amnesty International. A year later, only limited progress has been achieved on five of these issues, in four areas the authorities have failed to make any improvements.

“Qatar is failing migrant workers. Last year the government made promises to improve migrant labour rights in Qatar, but in practice, there have been no significant advances in the protection of rights,” said Mustafa Qadri, Gulf migrant rights researcher at Amnesty International.

Over the last 12 months, little has changed in law, policy and practice for the more than 1.5 million migrant workers in Qatar who remain at the mercy of their sponsors and employers. On the crucial issues of the exit permit, the restriction on changing employers in Qatar’s kafala system, protection of domestic workers and the freedom to form or join trade union – there has been no progress whatsoever, the report said.

“The lack of a clear roadmap of targets and benchmarks for reform leaves serious doubts about Qatar’s commitment to tackling migrant labour abuse. Without prompt action, the pledges Qatar made last year are at serious risk of being dismissed as a mere public relations stunt to ensure the Gulf state can cling on to the 2022 World Cup,” said Mustafa Qadri.

“FIFA has spent much time, money and political capital investigating alleged corruption in the Russia and Qatar World Cup bids, and agonising over the scheduling of the tournament. But the organisation has yet to demonstrate any real commitment to ensuring Qatar 2022 is not built on a foundation of exploitation and abuse,” said Mustafa Qadri.

“FIFA must work closely with the government, the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee - the body responsible for organising the Qatar World Cup - major corporate partners and others responsible for delivering the tournament to prevent abuses linked to the staging of the World Cup.”

The most significant reform proposed by the government last year: the introduction of an electronic wage system to change the way migrants' salaries are paid, is still in the process of being implemented. Many migrants interviewed by Amnesty International in recent months still complained of late or non-payment of wages.

Qatar has also failed to meet its target to have 300 labour inspectors in place by the end of 2014.There has been only limited progress on measures to improve safety on construction sites, regulate exploitative recruitment agencies and improve access to justice for victims of labour exploitation.

Even if all the reforms Qatar announced in May 2014 had been implemented, these measures would not be sufficient to address the root causes behind widespread exploitation of migrant workers.