The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Families of migrant workers who died in Qatar are waiting for answers

Activists protest the World Cup in Qatar outside the Qatar Embassy in Paris on Tuesday. The protesters honored migrant workers who died during construction work for the tournament, and decried alleged rights violations in Qatar. (Francois Mori/AP)

NEW DELHI — The last time Ramulu Maraveni’s children saw their father was in March on a grainy video call from Qatar, where he worked. His two daughters, ages 18 and 16, needed dresses, and his 10-year-old son asked for a teacup. They spoke the next morning before school. By the time the children got home, Maraveni was dead.

Eight months later, his family, who live in India, is still not sure why.

Maraveni, 51, paved roads around World Cup stadiums and collapsed while on the job, a colleague said. A Qatari death certificate said the cause was “acute heart failure from natural causes.” He had been working grueling hours as Qatar raced to prepare for the tournament, his wife said. A few weeks before his death, he fainted. A doctor who examined him blamed low blood pressure, and he soon returned to work.

“It was hard work and continuous,” said his wife, Lavanya Maraveni, who estimated he earned between $500 and $600 a month. “But he continued to work for our children’s future.”

The construction company that had employed Ramulu Maraveni for 15 years sent his family a check for $3,000 to cover back wages and other benefits, his wife said.

Human rights groups say the unexplained deaths of thousands of migrant workers during Qatar’s nearly 12 years of preparations for the World Cup have tarnished the tournament, exposing lax oversight by soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, and abusive labor conditions in the host country.

For the workers’ relatives, the deaths have left grief and debt, but also a deep and distressing uncertainty over the way they died and what, in the end, they were owed.

For years there was no system — and seemingly no will — to vigorously investigate many of the deaths, rights groups said, with the toll obscured by official certificates attributing them to natural causes, which required no follow-up under Qatari law.

Qatar has disputed the death toll, in part by insisting that work on infrastructure apart from World Cup stadiums was not related to the tournament. It has also carried out measures that labor and human rights groups say are significant and will better protect workers if they are fully implemented.

Beyond the deaths, watchdog groups said many migrant workers trying to support families back home were trapped in a punishing system that included the payment of exorbitant fees to recruiters, nonpayment of wages and appalling conditions in work camps. Many of those conditions persist.

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Qatar, the smallest country and first Arab state to host the tournament, has rebuffed calls for it, along with FIFA, to contribute to a compensation fund for deceased workers and establish an independent body to investigate their deaths. Qatari officials say the country has already provided tens of millions of dollars to workers whose wages were withheld by their companies.

Migrant workers make up the vast majority of Qatar’s population, with many Nepali, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian workers employed in low-wage jobs, including construction. They have played a central role in building the architecture of the World Cup — not just the stadiums but the highways and roads that lead to them, an extensive metro system and hotels for fans.

Indians are the largest migrant group in Qatar. India’s Foreign Ministry has said that nearly 2,400 of its citizens died in Qatar between 2014 and 2021, without specifying what caused the deaths. The ministry also said in February that Qatar topped the list of countries from which Indians were seeking compensation for worker fatalities, with 81 cases pending.

Rejimon Kuttappan, an Indian journalist who covers migrant rights, said the Indian government has been reluctant to provide more detailed information. “They keep on meddling with the data to maintain the diplomatic ties and the good friendship” with Qatar, he said Thursday, during a briefing hosted by Human Rights Watch.

Because Qatar’s death certificates often cited natural causes or cardiac arrest, it was generally difficult to prove how workers died, he added, even when family members or colleagues believed that “humidity or overtime work or mental stress” were to blame. When bodies were returned to India, families rarely conducted autopsies, he said, because of a desire to quickly hold burials or because they were unaware that such exams were an option.

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Maraveni, who hailed from Shivangalapally, a village in southern India, had worked for Boom Construction in Qatar since 2007, according to a copy of a letter that was sent by the company to his co-workers after his death and reviewed by The Washington Post. The letter asked his colleagues to provide “kindness and any assistance to his bereaved family”; they responded by pooling nearly $500 to send to Lavanya and the three children.

The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment or to a detailed list of questions about Maraveni’s employment history or the circumstances of his death. An employee at the company told a Post reporter who visited Boom’s offices in Doha on Thursday that the head of human resources, who authored the letter, was unavailable.

In recent years, Maraveni had helped build roads in Qatar as a road roller operator, including those around Lusail Stadium, north of central Doha, where the World Cup finals will be held, according to his roommate and co-worker.

Lavanya, 36, said her husband worked 12-hour shifts that often stretched longer. The work alternated between night and day shifts. In the run-up to the World Cup, the pressure grew: Workers were given targets they had to complete, no matter how much time it took, she recalled Maraveni telling her. The heat could be unbearable, often exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

“There is a lot of work happening in Qatar at a very fast pace,” said a worker who knew Maraveni and spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his job. “I normally work eight-hour shifts, but right now I am working 12 hours a day,” said the worker, who is employed by a different company in Qatar.

The pace also meant there were fewer chances to go home to India. Maraveni had not seen his family in two years — he had been hoping to receive a benefit that allowed workers who were away that long to claim a free ticket and two months’ leave. But his family said the company would not grant his leave, because there was too much work.

A month before his death, Maraveni had fainted, a co-worker said. A private doctor told Maraveni the cause was low blood pressure, and he resumed work immediately, said the co-worker, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation by his employer.

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On March 19, Maraveni, who lived in the company’s labor camp, woke up earlier than his colleagues and cooked rice for the group, his co-worker said. Hours later at the work site, he vomited and was taken to a hospital, where he was declared dead, according to interviews with family members and the co-worker.

The uncertainty over what caused his death, along with the lingering questions around so many similar cases, is especially vexing given how forcefully Qatar has moved on other fronts to improve its labor practices — granting migrant workers a minimum wage and the ability to change jobs, limiting working hours during the hottest months and vowing to punish employers who withhold wages.

In an interview, Mahmoud Qutub, the director of workers’ welfare and labor rights at the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Qatar’s World Cup organizer, repeated the government’s official position that only three worker deaths were related directly to the tournament. But he acknowledged there had been “confusion and misunderstandings” on both sides of the debate, in part because of a lack of government data.

“The lesson learned is transparency,” he said, adding that a 2020 report by the International Labor Organization, which found 50 worker-related deaths that year, was an “important” step.

For Maraveni’s family, life has changed dramatically. Without the monthly $350 remittance from her husband, Lavanya said, they were subsisting on the $80 she earns each month by hand-rolling cigarettes.

The three children — one of whom has a congenital abnormality — have been forced to drop out of their private school and now attend public school.

Over the years, Maraveni had been able to pay back the debt he took on to get the job in Qatar and expand their two-room mud home to a four-room brick house. He had even treated himself, buying a motorcycle.

His wife sold it recently to pay for school fees.

“Can you imagine the life of a widow?” Lavanya said. “Life seems meaningless without him, and I often do not wish to live any longer. But I have to, for our kids.”

Fahim reported from Doha. B. Kartheek in Hyderabad, India, contributed to this report.

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