We spoke to Adam Sobel, director of The Workers Cup, a film that profiles a group of migrant workers building the stadiums for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, while harbouring footballing dreams of their own.

In 2010, Qatar was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup. The winning bid outlined an ambitious vision for transforming the country’s infrastructure and plans for a series of new stadiums to host the event. The work would require vast numbers of migrant workers to complete. From the very beginning of construction, reports emerged detailing the terrible conditions confronting the workers. But none of these reports have managed to show what life is really like from the workers’ perspective.

In 2014, the committee organizing the 2022 World Cup decided to sponsor a football tournament for labourers – the Workers Cup – inviting 24 construction companies to field teams. With unprecedented access to the Um Salal labour camp, The Workers Cup is a portrait of a handful of workers playing for the General Construction Company (GCC) in the Workers Cup. Midfield Generalities spoke to the film’s director Adam Sobel about the making of the film, his time spent in the labour camps and what the World Cup means for migrant workers in Qatar.

MG: How did you come to make The Workers Cup?

AS: I lived in Qatar for about five years and the film’s producers, Ramsey and Rosie, had lived in Qatar for even longer. We’d all been working as journalists in the country for a while and one of the stories we were often asked to cover was the story of the migrant workers who are building the World Cup stadiums and infrastructure. We did that for different outlets such as the BBC and CNN and while we felt that the work we did led to some important insights, we didn’t think it led to much understanding, because we weren’t able to spend enough time in the labour camps and we certainly weren’t able to get to know the workers intimately.

Making those reports, we would walk into a labour camp and we’d have a self-imposed rule that we’d only spend eight minutes there, because after that time the authorities would inevitably show up. Working undercover meant that we had to hide people’s identities and we felt that the humanity was missing from those projects.

We were looking for some way to approach the story on the terms of the workers. But that required access. This tournament got announced – the Workers Cup – and we knew that that the organisers of the World Cup were interested in promoting it and we thought that perhaps we could find a way through the tournament to get real access to a camp.

MG: How did you come to choose the workers from Global Construction Company (GCC) as the subjects of your film?

AS: Each team in the tournament represents one company that’s bidding on World Cup projects. We went around to each of the companies and some were outright against the notion of a film crew being anywhere near their labour camps or job sites, so that ruled them out. But there were a few that were interested. We went and watched these teams training and we met the players and GCC were really compelling to us for two reasons. Number one, the access was there. Secondly, they had a great energy about them and the team was multi-ethnic.

This was all a very compressed timeframe. We didn’t get permission to make the film until a day before the tournament began.

MG: Did you see the film as giving a platform to the workers? How did your relationship with them work?

AS: We always imagined that the film would be a platform for the voices of the workers. I was adamant that there would be no other voices in the film, that there wouldn’t be a narrator, there wouldn’t be Qatari experts or labour experts. But it’s a hard thing to answer, how collaborative is documentary? It’s a theoretical question that can be unpicked in many ways. I would like to think that the film was collaborative and that our characters guided a lot of the content. But at the end of the day, the filmmaker must go and edit that material, so I can only say that I was as sensitive as possible to what I thought was compelling to our characters and what I thought would represent them well. The one guiding principle that we had from the beginning was that we wanted to make a film that the workers themselves would be proud of; we didn’t want to make a film where they looked like victims.

MG: The film is supposed to create understanding, but is it also an exposé?

AS: The film was never supposed to be an exposé. We’d made shorter exposés and we didn’t feel like they’d had that much of an impact on society and if we wanted to do something on a larger scale, we would be exposing ourselves and our characters, who all lived in Qatar, to considerable risk. The aim of the film was to reveal the situation for what it is, but to do so by holding up our character’s humanity instead of portraying them as victims. So how could we honour their dignity, their humour and competitiveness and just say “hey that’s all of the evidence that you really need to see how wrong the situation is?” That was the aim.

Umesh, a worker and Manchester United fan who named his children Robin and Rooney, supporting the GGC players. Image courtesy of ‘The Workers Cup’.MG: Is this a human rights film, or a film about football?

AS: The football was critical to breaking down this stigma that people in the Gulf, but also globally, feel about migrants. To see them as something greater than just migrants, it was important to portray them as football players. What I didn’t realise going into the project was that some of the characters, like Kenneth, would come from a footballing background and would see the tournament as an opportunity to escape the camp not just in a metaphorical sense, but in a literal sense. That infused the game with greater stakes.

I think most importantly the tournament broke their [the workers] monotony: the workers are caught in this terrible loop of waking up, going to their work site, working an 11-12 hour day, driving another hour to get back to their labour camp, having a meal, going to bed and then they wake up the next morning and everything starts over again. And many workers end up doing this seven days a week, although by law they’re not supposed to.

MG: There’s an odd paradox that the workers, both as players and as supporters, represent and even seem to celebrate the companies that treat them so badly. Is that the case?

I think it is a paradox. Certainly, the workers themselves were just supporting the team that their friends were playing for. But as an outsider looking at that, it’s easy to see that they were being used by the company on another level. I think that’s what made the tournament so interesting to me is that in some ways the workers are being used as pawns in a PR ploy. But even the guys who were savvy to that were still desperate for the tournament and loved it. That irony held the film in balance. 

For the people who are working to improve the situation for workers in Qatar, there is a small window. 2022 is the cut-off date. Once the World Cup has come and gone, then workers will be existing in the shadows again.”

MG: At one point in the film, divisions in the team along ethnic or national lines start to emerge. Was that something that came out only when the team started playing badly?

AS: Well those differences exist without the tournament. The labour camps are separated by nationality. The Kenyan workers live in one room, Ghanian workers in another, Nepalis in a different room and so on. Those rooms are multiplied out by hundreds. Each nationality is segregated to its own corner of the camp. Not only do you live with your own nationality, but you also eat with your own nationality. That segregation exists by design: the company would say that it’s how they maintain order.

Of course, it also exists within the country, where labour camps are segregated by law and must be far away from residential areas. I think that feeling of being cut off and separated and on their own, is already baked in the cake, if you will, for migrant workers in Qatar. The tournament provided an opportunity from them to come together, so it almost created an opportunity to organise and unionise as a group. That was great when the tournament was going well for GCC and they were winning, but as soon as they lost and they had to deal with the feeling of being a loser, that situation turned. And they started going back to this mentality of “no no we’re against each other instead of for each other”.

MG: What’s the awareness of the workers’ conditions in Qatar outside of the camps?

AS: I think it depends, there’s myriad reactions from people. Workers, by design, are out of sight and out of mind in Qatar. At best, as a white-collar expat worker, or as a Qatari national, you’ll see workers on the side of the road as they’re doing construction on a road or building. You might see them in the distance, cordoned off behind a hoarding board on a construction site, but there’s no one-to-one connections. People are aware of the [workers’] situation, but it’s just not something that they deal with on a daily basis.

Paul, a player for GCC, brushes his teeth in his camp accommodation. Image courtesy of ‘The Workers Cup’.MG: What’s the feeling about the World Cup among white collar workers and Qatari nationals? And what’s the feeling amongst the workers?

AS: I don’t want to be cynical about Qatar hosting the World Cup. I think that the Middle East deserves to host a World Cup and Qatar was in a position where they could make themselves an attractive host.

Workers, by design, are out of sight and out of mind in Qatar”.

I think in general, people in Qatar see the World Cup as a positive thing for the country, as a way of elevating the country’s profile and hopefully putting it on the world stage. What Qataris didn’t expect is this backlash of media criticism around the labour situation for workers. I think one of the reasons why that was a surprise is that the labour situation in Qatar predates Qatar winning the World Cup bid by decades. The difference is that now that Qatar has won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, the rest of the world suddenly cares about the labour situation. The truth is, once the 2022 World Cup is passed, people’s interest in the labour situation in Qatar will also pass.  For the people who are working to improve the situation for workers in Qatar, there is a small window. 2022 is the cut-off date. Once the World Cup has come and gone, then workers will be existing in the shadows again.

MG: There’s a lot of talk about legacy surrounding World Cups. What do you think will be the Qatar World Cup’s legacy?

AS: I think there would be an incredible legacy if the situation of the 1.6 million migrant workers was improved, to the point that they felt like they were living under fair and humane circumstances. And I should also say that while people will only bash Qatar, this situation is not particular to Qatar. It exists in Saudi Arabia, it exists in the UAE, it exists across the Gulf and beyond into Jordan and Lebanon. It’s a regional issue and if you can improve the situation in Qatar then perhaps it might have an affect elsewhere. That would be the main legacy for the 2022 World Cup to have.

It’s not going to be your usual World Cup. Alcohol will not be flowing as freely and the football culture…yes Qataris love football and it is the national sport within the country, but the fanaticism won’t look the same as when the World Cup is hosted by football superpowers. But at some point, the World Cup had to happen in the Middle East and Qatar is a safe country. I think it would be a shame if it didn’t happen in Qatar. Returning to the irony that exists within the film, the workers, perhaps not all workers, but certainly those that we followed in the film, are in some respects suffering for the sake of the World Cup and yet they are huge fans of the World Cup: if the World Cup didn’t happen, they would be devastated. I think that reveals some greater way that we find meaning in life, that they could be suffering for the World Cup on the one hand, yet on the other hand be dying to watch it and dying to be a part of it.

The Workers Cup has its broadcast premiere in the United States on July 9th on POV on PBS.

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