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Qatar Blocks Nepalese Workers From Returning Home For Earthquake Funerals

Employers in Qatar often confiscate foreign workers' passports while they toil in harsh conditions on construction sites.

Posted on May 25, 2015, at 12:15 p.m. ET

Prakash Mathema / Getty Images

Thousands of Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar, toiling on construction sites for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, have been denied the chance to return home for the funerals of loved ones killed in last month's deadly earthquake, Nepal's government says.

More than 8,000 people were killed in the earthquake, but Nepal's government says Qatari companies are blocking people from leaving the country because of the need to complete the construction projects.

"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," Nepal's labor minister, Tek Bahadur Gurung, told the Guardian. "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."

"They have lost relatives and their homes and are enduring very difficult conditions in Qatar. This is adding to their suffering," Gurung said.

Marwan Naamani / AFP / Getty Images

A Nepalese laborer working in Qatar stands outside his room at a private camp housing foreign workers in Doha.

Hundreds of thousands of South Asian workers have moved to the Gulf nation where they work in oppressive conditions amid extreme heat, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. Some 90% of workers have their passports confiscated by their employers, the ITUC wrote in a March 2014 report, with employers having near total control of the movement of their workers under the so-called "kafala" system.

"Fundamental rights and freedoms do not exist for workers in Qatar whether for poor migrant workers or highly paid professional expatriates," Sharan Burrow, the ITUC general secretary, writes in the report. "Foreign workers are enslaved -- owned by employers who hold the power of recruitment, total control over wages and conditions of employment, the authority to issue ID cards (not having an ID card can lead to prison) and the ability to refuse a change of employment or an exit visa to leave the country."

Last week, a team of BBC reporters investigating the working conditions in Qatar were arrested and interrogated for hours by authorities.

Gurang said FIFA and its corporate sponsors need to pressure Qatar to allow the workers to return home.

"Nothing will change for migrant workers until Fifa and its rich sponsors insist on it," he told the Guardian. "These are the people who are bringing the World Cup to Qatar. But we are a small, poor country and these powerful organizations are not interested in listening to us."

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