Migrant workers employed as security guards in a huge park that will be at the heart of Qatar’s World Cup festivities appear to be being paid as little as 35 pence an hour.
The men are stationed across Al Bidda Park, a pristine green space adjoining the Fifa Fan Festival. Throughout the tournament Al Bidda Park will be packed with football fans enjoying the sweeping lawns, shaded picnic spots and views over Doha. The guards interviewed are not contracted to Fifa or deployed in the Festival.
But long after fans have retreated to their hotels, the guards will stay on. In fact, it appears that fans are likely to see more of Doha in a week than these men will see in years. The guards say they work 12-hour shifts, and claim they usually get just one day off a month.
“We just go between our duty and our accommodation,” said one holding out his phone. “You can show me anywhere in Qatar and I won’t know where it is.”
The claims come on the eve of the start of the men’s Fifa World Cup, which is due to start on Sunday amid widespread international criticism of the host nation’s record on migrant worker and LGBTQ+ rights.
In recent weeks Fifa and the Qatari authorities have battled to turn the spotlight away from workers’ and LGBTQ+ rights, with Fifa’s general secretary Gianni Infantino saying World Cup teams they should “focus on the football” and warning them against “handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world”.
The Guardian’s findings are based on interviews carried out over the past few months with park guards working for Al Nasr Star Security Services. Guards and “marshals” employed by other companies also work in the park. There is no suggestion they are subject to the same claims over conditions.
Analysis by The Guardian of workers’ pay notifications, corroborated by workers’ accounts of their working hours and pay, suggests that the guards are typically paid 1330 rials (£310) a month for 348 hours on duty, plus a small food allowance. It is understood that this includes 104 hours of overtime, for which they are paid 150 rials, which if correct equates to less than 35p an hour.
Such working hours and overtime pay appear to be in breach of Qatar’s labour laws.
The security guards say they know they are being underpaid but feel powerless to act. “It’s illegal, but the government keeps quiet, so what can we do?” claims one.
“We put up with it because we need the money,” said another, revealing the predicament faced by many low-wage workers in Qatar. Others are grateful to at least have a job that pays more than they can make at home. “I’m happy because I get something … It’s a struggle but I don’t care because I don’t have anything,” one said.
An Amnesty International report in March this year found exploitation in the private security sector was commonplace in Qatar.
“Security guards are integral to the smooth running of the World Cup … No one should have to work under these conditions and anyone who has suffered abuse must be provided redress,” said Ella Knight, researcher on migrants’ labour rights at Amnesty.
Knight suggested the Guardian’s findings are, “another clear example of the shortcomings of the reform process and how remaining gaps in enforcement of laws continue to afflict the lives of migrant workers in the country.”
Qatar’s labour reforms should mean the Al Bidda Park guards are able to transfer to a better-paying job, but the workers say in practice it is very difficult, and believe that they still need their employer’s permission to seek other work. “If they gave [permission] … 90% would have changed jobs,” said one. “Even when we are sleeping, we dream of changing our job,” added a colleague.
Separately they all claim they had been forced to pay illegal recruitment fees – in the region of £1,175-£1,650 – to recruitment agents in their home countries to secure their jobs, effectively forcing them to work for up to five months just to repay the fee. And, while some football fans will enjoy the most opulent hotels in the world, some of these men sleep in bunk beds in over-crowded labour camps on the edge of the desert.
The Guardian visited one camp which houses the guards and found rooms with four bunk beds crammed end-to-end around the edge of a tiny space. There were no lockers, so the men shared their beds with their belongings or a suitcase. Cooking utensils were stuffed under the beds. Two large grimy kitchens and foul-smelling toilet cubicles stood outside. One guard said the toilets were so bad in his camp that he preferred to wait and use the ones at the park.
It is a world few football fans will see. Turn off a four-lane highway out of Doha and on to a potholed road and the only traffic is an endless flow of buses and minivans shipping men to and from their workplace. The road leads to dozens of accommodation blocks amid wasteland covered in litter. Outside each block, men sit on rocks scrolling through their phones while stray dogs play in the dust. A homemade basketball hoop is the only sign of normal life.
Today the Building and Wood Workers’ International, a trade union which has worked in partnership with the Qatari authorities to improve workers’ rights in the country, issued a strong-worded statement saying, ‘there is no sign that sustainable change [for migrant workers] is forthcoming.’
A Qatari government official said, “Over the past decade, extensive action has been taken to combat exploitative labour practices and provide accessible channels for workers to make complaints … When violations are recorded, corrective action is taken, and offending companies are penalised.”
The official said over 420,000 workers have changed their employer since a new law was introduced in 2020, which made it easier to change jobs. Last month, 3,712 labour inspections were carried out, he added, and 97% of workers are covered by the wage protection system, “which ensures all wages are paid in full and on time.”
“Systemic change does not happen in an instant – it takes time to transform a labour market. In other countries, this was a decades-long process, and in many countries – including in Europe – this process is still ongoing.
“Hundreds of thousands of workers have benefited from our labour reforms, and our commitment to improving the lives of every expatriate who has made Qatar a second home will continue long after the World Cup,” the official said.
The managing director of the Al Nasr Star Group confirmed the guards work 12-hour shifts but said that they get two hours’ break each day and one day off a week. The security guards who spoke to the Guardian claim they do not routinely get breaks during their working day, although one worker did say he was given breaks from work during the summer months.
The company did not respond to repeated requests for a written response to the allegations put to the Guardian by its workers or provide timesheets or information on pay for security guards working at Al Bidda.
Mobilising Assam’s ‘hargila army’: how 10,000 women saved India’s rarest stork | Global development
On a cool December afternoon a group of women dressed in brightly coloured mekhela chadors (Assam’s traditional handwoven clothing) sit in a circle on the grass at the Bhokha Beel wetlands, singing and clapping.
Some of the women are wearing papier-mache headdresses shaped like long-necked birds. As they sing, one of them gets to her feet and starts dancing.
They are part of the “hargila army”, a group of rural women in the Indian state of Assam who work to protect one of the world’s rarest storks: the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) – or hargila (meaning “bone swallower” in Assamese) as the scavenger bird is known locally. They are celebrating the recent UN Environment Programme’s Champions of the Earth award, conferred on the group’s biologist founder, Dr Purnima Devi Barman.
Barman won the award for her achievement in mobilising more than 10,000 women to help save the stork. “They are the protectors of the birds and of their nesting trees,” says Barman, referring to the band of homemakers turned conservationists.
The greater adjutant, a member of the stork family that can grow up to 1.5 metres (5ft) tall, was once abundant across south Asia. But its distinctive features – a featherless head, dangling gular (throat) pouch, striking pale eyes and long skinny legs – and its foul-smelling droppings and dietary preference for carrion – won it few fans.
The birds were not just reviled, they were seen as a bad omen and carriers of disease. Villagers attacked them with stones, cut down trees where they roosted communally and burned their nests.
Today the greater adjutant is endangered, with fewer than 1,200 adult birds in its last strongholds – the Indian states of Assam and Bihar, and Cambodia. Most of the global population is found in Assam, making Barman and the hargila army’s work critical to its survival.
Barman grew up in a village on the Brahmaputra, a river that flows for 2,500 miles through Tibet, north-east India and Bangladesh. As a child, she learned about Assam’s wildlife from her grandmother, who took her into the paddy fields where she worked and taught her about local birdlife. “She didn’t know how to write but she had a feeling for nature and taught me lots of songs and stories about the birds,” says Barman.
Her love of the natural world stayed with her. She gained a first degree and a master’s in zoology and was about to embark on a PhD on the greater adjutant when a contact phoned to tell her that a villager in Dadara had cut down a kadam (burflower) nesting tree in his yard.
When she arrived at the site she was appalled to find the ground littered with nests and dead or injured chicks. “It was my mothering instinct. I wanted to do something to protect these innocent creatures,” says Barman, whose twin girls were two at the time.
Barman began teaching the villagers about the birds’ importance as “nature’s cleaning crew”, and why nesting trees should not be cut down. In response, she was taunted and asked to clean the foul-smelling mess herself. The hostility she faced made her realise that to save the bird, she first needed to change the community’s attitude to it.
She delayed her PhD and set to work: she organised public meetings where she honoured the owners of trees, mostly men, instilling in them a sense of pride in their role as guardians. The tactic paid off. “Not a single nesting tree has been cut down since 2010,” she says.
But it was the women who Barman believed held the key to sustainable and community-led conservation. The problem was they were confined to their homes and household chores. So Barman found creative ways to bring them out where she could talk to them. She began organising cooking competitions of traditional sweets and snacks, where she befriended the women and talked about the birds.
She tapped into the women’s nurturing side by organising “baby showers” during the storks’ breeding season, inspired by a Hindu ritual for expectant human mothers, and “happy hatching” ceremonies to commemorate the arrival of the chicks. Slowly but surely, the women began to accept the birds as part of their world.
By 2014, the conservation movement had gathered momentum and the hargila army was born. “Conservation is all about uniting people and building ownership,” says Barman. “I’ve always believed that, if given a chance, women can make a big difference in conservation.”
Today, the once-maligned bird is now a cultural symbol, appearing on everything from towels to road-safety campaigns.
In the villages of Dadara, Pacharia and Singimari (all in Kamrup district), greater adjutants’ nests have increased from 28 in 2010 to more than 250 according to Barman’s last count, making the area the world’s largest breeding colony. “We now have more than 1,000 hargila birds in Assam,” says Barman, referring to recent but unpublished data collected by her team.
The conservation efforts have also transformed the lives of the women, who now go into other villages to raise awareness of the birds. “Joining the hargila army gave me a chance to show everyone that I could do something meaningful with my life,” says Daivaki Saikia, a young widow from Dadara’s marginalised fishing community, who has been a member for five years.
The UN award was for Barman’s “entrepreneurial vision” in using conservation to improve women’s economic status. Assam has a rich tradition of weaving, so Barman secured funding for 30 looms and provided training in weaving the hargila motif into fabrics, providing women with an independent income. Eighty women were also given sewing machines to make bags, cushion covers and other items from the handwoven fabrics.
In 2021, Barman established the Hargila Learning and Conservation Centre in a government school in Pacharia village, where hargila army members use songs, art and games to encourage children to protect the birds.
Juggling her job as a biologist at Aaranyak, a wildlife non-profit organisation based in the city of Guwahati, Barman continues to help preserve the hargila. In February the hargila army begins its work in the districts of Morigaon and Nagaon, with further expansion planned for Assam.
She also hopes to set up a nursery for kadam trees that can be distributed to those who want to plant them in their gardens (45,000 saplings have already been handed out). “This will help improve the back-yard biodiversity,” says Barman.
Barman’s unwavering dedication has been recognised in India and internationally. Last year she was named World Female Ranger and in 2017, she received the prestigious Whitley award, known as the “Green Oscars”, as well as India’s highest civilian honour for women – the Nari Shakti Puraskar.
But Barman refuses to rest on her laurels. No opportunity to advocate for the bird is missed. “My intention is to involve everyone,” she says. “If people are concerned about the conservation of the hargila and its habitat, it will help other species as well.”
Video | The 10 deadliest earthquakes of the 21st century | International
The death toll from the Syria and Turkey earthquake rose Wednesday to more than 11,000, making it the deadliest quake worldwide in more than a decade and one of the 10 most lethal earthquakes of the 21st century.
In this video, EL PAÍS reviews, in chronological order, the quakes that have caused the largest loss of life since 2001. The list includes the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which killed 250,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless, as well as the 2004 quake that hit the Indonesian province of Aceh, triggering a tsunami that killed nearly 230,000.
Other major natural disasters include the 2003 earthquake in Iran, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan, killing 15,690 people. The video shows the devastating impact of these natural disasters. Earthquakes take an especially hard toll on countries that are ill-prepared to face an emergency of such scale. Japan and Chile, for example, have been hit by stronger quakes, but recorded fewer fatalities thanks to anti-seismic building norms.
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Uganda condemned for ‘shameful’ decision to close UN human rights office | Global development
Rights activists and campaigners have condemned the Ugandan government’s decision to shut down the country’s UN human rights office, describing it as “shameful”.
In a letter to the Office of the UN high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) in Uganda dated 3 February, the foreign affairs ministry said it will not renew the host country agreement it signed with the OHCHR, which established its initial mandate in the country in 2005. The current mandate, signed on 9 February 2020, expires in August.
“The government of Uganda will now continue its cooperation with the OHCHR Headquarters either directly or through its Permanent Mission in Geneva,” reads the letter.
The development comes less than three months after the UN’s committee against torture adopted the concluding observations on Uganda, which raised concerns that torture and ill-treatment continued to be frequently practised, and called for investigation and prosecution of security officials accused of excessive use of force, violence and arbitrary detention.
“The closure of the @UNHumanRightsUG office proves that [the] government has lost all sense of shame. It no longer wants any close international scrutiny of its human rights record,” tweeted Adrian Jjuuko, executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum.
“If the protectors are sent away, what then happens to those they were protecting? We are headed for tough times,” he added.
Bobi Wine, the reggae singer turned Ugandan opposition leader, whose supporters remain in unauthorised places of detention or “safe houses”, said it was no surprise that Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, has closed the OHCHR. He tweeted: “In the face of growing international condemnation and isolation, tyrant Museveni has responded by shutting down NGOs, Facebook, DGF [Democratic Governance Facility] & declaring several internationals Persona Non-Grata or deporting them! Now he shuts down @UNHumanRightsUG.”
Wine added: “You’ll recall in the aftermath of the 2021 election and the hundreds killed or abducted by the Museveni regime, we petitioned the UN Human Rights Office & the military brutalised journalists right there. This UN Office condemned these actions. Not surprising it’s being closed.”
Human right activists and advocacy groups have called the decision a “mockery” and accused the government of running from international scrutiny on abuse and protection of human rights.
“This is unbelievable, and the reasons given by the government are a mockery of the real state of human rights in the country,” said Jjuuko. “To claim that Uganda no longer needs the office [OHCHR] because of its strong stand for human rights is ironic to say the least.
“A strong stand for human rights would imply opening up to the UN and other actors.”
David Livingstone Sewanyana, founder of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in the capital, Kampala, told the Guardian, “The decision not to renew the mandate deprives Uganda of a critical player in the field of human rights promotion and protection.”
At least 38 local and international staff at the head office in Kampala and two field offices in Gulu and Moroto stand to lose their jobs.
Jjuuko said: “Following closely on the closure of the DGF, this is a scary move which indicates that the government is no longer willing to have its human rights record scrutinised by international actors.
“This leaves local organisations at much more risk of being further silenced and their work curtailed without the government fearing close international security. It is a sad day indeed for the human rights movement in Uganda.”
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