A migrant’s desperate day chasing work at the World Cup

DOHA, Qatar – The man in an ironed burgundy shirt standing in the middle of the Msheireb metro station took in his surroundings inside the cavernous terminal, the center of a multibillion-dollar system built by Qatar ahead of the 2022 World Cup . He had lived in the country for six years but had never set foot in a subway car.

He too was lost. Nazmul, a Bangladeshi man in his 30s, has never really felt the need to use the metro station. But today was a special day: he was told to go to a building across from Doha, the capital of Qatar, to pick up credentials for the World Cup.

Nazmul was excited not because the card allowed him to see some of the world’s best soccer players on the field, but because he could work with it.

Thousands of the migrant workers who have been taking part in the extensive nation-building program that has prepared Qatar for the World Cup have been sent home in recent months as the country suspended its major projects until after the month-long soccer tournament ended. But thousands more like Nazmul remain, clamoring for jobs that were easy to find not so long ago. He agreed to allow a New York Times reporter to accompany him on his job search, but asked that his last name be withheld to preserve his ability to work in Qatar.

Nazmul had already turned over his work permit and application to a recruiter who claimed to be dating a person in charge of cleaning contracts at the World Cup. The agent had handed out IDs to some applicants, while urging others, like Nazmul, to go to the FIFA Workers’ Center on the outskirts of Doha and present themselves at the cavernous Workers’ Accreditation Center.

Finally finding his bearings, Nazmul headed for the red metro line, one of three being built to take commuters and soccer fans across the Qatari capital, a thumb-shaped peninsula jutting into the Arabian Gulf.

On the short train ride to Al Qassar, Nazmul’s fear was palpable, and his foot trembled throughout the journey. At each stop, he would ask nearby commuters if he had arrived at his destination. The $30 a day he would earn cleaning up after fans at the World Cup would be triple Qatar’s minimum wage. He had few better options. There were few jobs. “About 50 percent of the people here are not working right now,” Nazmul said. “Everything stands still”

Nazmul eventually arrived at Al Qassar and walked purposefully towards the employment office, which was surrounded by plaques adorned with WM branding and words and phrases like “Amazing” and “All is Now.”

He was quickly escorted to a booth, where he handed his identity documents to a woman in a headscarf. She typed his details into a computer and a few minutes later broke the bad news: Nazmul wasn’t on the system. He didn’t have a job.

The disappointment was palpable. He mumbled the word “tension” in English. And then said it again: “A lot of excitement.”

In 2017, Nazmul paid the equivalent of $6,000 to employment agencies in Bangladesh just to get a work visa to enter Qatar. Arriving without a contract, he worked from job to job; Some positions lasted a few months, others a few weeks, but there had always been work up until the World Cup. That meant the economics — including a $1,000 annual fee for extending his visa — made almost sense.

Disappointed, Nazmul made his way back to the station to take a train journey, which, while novel, came at a cost and ended up without the promised job. “I’m just going to my room,” he said. “What else can I do?” He would speak to the agent who promised the job, he said, but he’s already waiting for the answer: “He’ll say, ‘I handed in the papers, it didn’t happen, what should I do?'”

Nazmul tried to scan his subway card, but it was out of credit. A worker helped him load more money and asked him how much he would like to add. Nazmul asked for the minimum; He’d been waiting years for his first ride on the subway, which opened in 2019, and knew he might not be back any time soon. A group of World Cup fans stopped by with no concerns about travel expenses. Qatari authorities had dropped all charges against fans, journalists and workers linked to the tournament.

His room was in a run-down building in a run-down area just a 30-minute walk from Msheireb, a luxury development of new condominiums, five-star hotels and designer shops. Along the way, Nazmul pointed out three more sand-colored lots. “These have been cancelled,” he said, explaining how just weeks before the World Cup, hundreds of men living in them were suddenly expelled, many having just 30 minutes to get their stuff and leave. Some were left to sleep on the streets, according to news reports at the time, before eventually finding much more distant locations.

“I don’t know what they were thinking,” Nazmul said. “Maybe they don’t want us here when people come to the World Cup.”

While much of Doha is a testament to Qatar’s immense wealth, the scene at Al Mansoura, where Nazmul resides, is anything but. The paving is uneven, and the streets lack the expensive landscaping found nearby. The walls along the street are littered with posters, mostly written in Bengali, offering rooms, advertisements for job seekers and several for bug bite ointments.

Nazmul entered his building as a couple of men with FIFA World Cup references walked in the opposite direction. “I need one of them,” he said to no one in particular as he walked toward an elevator. He pressed the button for his floor. Upstairs the door opened into a large open space with a dirty tiled floor; A man was sitting on a bench in a sarong with a clothesline filled with socks hanging over his head. Two other men were standing next to them, smoking.

Nazmul said in normal times, when there was a lot of work, none of them would be here in the afternoon.

He went to his room, which he shared with 11 others. The room was filled with their possessions. Cooking utensils and bags rested under the lower bunks; Sarongs and towels were hung to give each man as little privacy as possible. A man sat cross-legged on the floor eating his lunch, a metal plate filled mostly with white rice.

Nazmul lingered on his bunk for a few minutes, contemplating his next move. He needed work soon. His family in Bangladesh, like the families of most of the others in this building, depended on what little money he could send home. He had not seen his son, now 9 years old, since he came to Qatar six years ago. He had watched his son grow up absently on his cell phone. “This is our life, all of this,” he said. “I work so hard for this kid.”

A few minutes later he was on his way back out and resumed his job search. Reaching the ground floor, he chanced upon a group of about 30 men in blue polo shirts, wearing those coveted World Cup badges around their necks. “These guys got the cleaning jobs,” Nazmul said.

One of the men said they were going to Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, north of Doha, to clean up after the World Cup opening game. Nazmul wishes he was part of the crew. “You’re lucky,” he said.

The men rushed to a bus parked in nearby scrubland that doubled as a parking lot. It would get the cleaners and other men to their jobs. Nazmul went the other way.

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