World Cup hotel shields England team from fans – and Qatar’s labour abuses
Security guards working near secluded Qatari venue have paid extortionate fees to endure long shifts for just over £1 an hour
Far from the glittering towers of Doha, off a road lined with scruffy fast-food outlets and down a narrow, bumpy lane that leads to a beach, stands the hotel that will host the England team at the World Cup.
When David Beckham and Gary Neville visited recently, the former players’ initial reaction was less than enthusiastic. “Who chose this?” was Neville’s blunt assessment, as they stood in front of the Souq al-Wakra hotel’s modest entrance.
But what the hotel lacks in glamour it makes up for in privacy. High walls enclose the venue, which is built in the traditional style of the souk that surrounds it. Rooms are arranged around small courtyards to preserve guests’ privacy. There are few externally facing windows; the only view of the beach is from a rooftop seating area.
Once inside, Beckham was more upbeat. “The thing that you look for is tranquillity more than anything. You want to be in the middle of nowhere,” he said as he strolled through the hotel’s grounds. “This is the perfect set-up.”
The beachfront has the feel of a rundown English seaside town, only hotter. As the heat eases in the evening, families come to swim in the sea or take a camel ride along the beach.
Back inside, the hotel staff appear excited at the prospect of hosting England’s top footballers. “Do you know the England team will be staying here? They’ve booked the whole hotel. David Beckham came – I served him,” an Indian waiter says eagerly.
“There’s no alcohol allowed. We are a dry hotel,” he adds, suggesting privacy is not the only reason the team’s manager, Gareth Southgate, favours the hotel.
For footballers used to outrageous luxury, it is a modest choice, more four-star than five. The standard rooms are small; there are few facilities, limited eating options and no swimming pool (not that December is swimming season in Qatar). Rooms are available from about £70 a night.
While 24 of the tournament’s 32 teams will be based within 6 miles (10km) of each other in Doha, England’s hotel is in al-Wakrah, a small town about 25 minutes’ drive south of the capital. Beyond the beach and souk, there is little to see or do, but in a country as small as Qatar, nothing is very far away.
England’s designated training ground is just a few minutes from the hotel. Al Bayt Stadium, where England could play most of their games, is the farthest of the eight stadiums from the hotel, but is still less than an hour’s drive away.
Sitting in the hotel’s main courtyard, with fountains gurgling in the background, Beckham – who has reportedly signed a multimillion-pound deal to promote Qatar – told Neville what an “incredible experience” the World Cup would be. “This is going to be a tournament that you’re not going to want to miss,” he said.
However, while the England team may be able to escape the frenzy of fans in their beachside hideaway, they will not be able to avoid the shadow of labour abuses that will fall on this World Cup.
In the souk outside and along the beachfront promenade, security guards from places including Kenya, Nepal and Pakistan endure 12-hour shifts for just over £1 an hour. They say they work 30 days a month. “If I take a day off, they cut my salary,” says one.
They say they have all been forced to pay extortionate fees – of up to £1,360 – to agents in their home countries to secure their jobs, meaning they have to work for months just to repay the costs.
Recent reforms to Qatar’s labour laws – touted by Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino – should mean they are free to change jobs and look for something better, but the workers who spoke to the Guardian say it is impossible.
“The company will not give us permission to leave. They tell us we have to cancel our visas, go home and then apply for another job,” says one.
Near the hotel, a Kenyan security guard, in the middle of another 12-hour shift, has a different take from Beckham. He explains that his salary is far lower than he was promised when he left home.
“It’s a trap, because you are told one thing in Kenya and another in Qatar,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do. Just keep quiet and get on with it.”
Under Qatari employment law, foreign workers have the right to change jobs if their contract is terminated and legal procedures are in place if an employee does not receive their wages or allowances at the end of their contract.
The Qatari government also said a fund to support workers, including by reimbursing unpaid wages or benefits, had paid out £152.5m by last month.
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