Qatar construction sector rife with migrant abuse

Poor conditions at the PCSI workers’  labor camp in Doha’s Industrial Area.
Poor conditions at the PCSI workers’ labor camp in Doha’s Industrial Area.
Amnesty

A broken migrant worker scheme in Qatar has allowed widespread abuse in the construction sector, says Amnesty International.

The human rights group released a new report today that shines yet another spotlight on the treatment of the workers building World Cup stadiums across the country.

The series of interviews by Amnesty confirms earlier investigative work done by the Guardian that revealed a de facto slave labor system being used for construction in Qatar. Problems were found  Amnesty interviewed 210 workers, twenty-two companies and government officials as a part of the investigation. Stress caused by dangerous working conditions, long hours and poor wages is leading to “severe psychological distress” in some of the workers.

Nepalese cement production workers told Amnesty that two workers suffered from heatstroke in 2012 as the result of excessively long hours and few days off, in the summer. The majority of Nepalese migrants to Qatar work in the construction sector. While it is hard to make a causal link, Amnesty suggests that poor working conditions may be behind a significant number of the 174 Nepalese nationals who died in Qatar in 2012.

“It is simply inexcusable in one of the richest countries in the world, that so many migrant workers are being ruthlessly exploited, deprived of their pay and left struggling to survive,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Labor rules that exist in Qatar are routinely flouted, finds the report. Construction workers routinely work a twelve hour day and seven days a week. Laws restrict workers to ten hours and specify that work cease in the middle of the day during the hottest times of the year when temperatures reach 113 F.

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The small middle eastern country that won the 2022 World Cup bid, in some part thanks to its vast oil wealth, relies heavily on migrant workers. The 1.35 million foreigners that work in Qatar make up roughly ninety-four percent of the nation’s workforce.

Immigration rules make it so that employers can exert control over the movement of its foreign employees. The ‘kafala’ system stipulates that sponsors, usually the company, can control when a migrant can enter the country, change jobs and leave. When workers face harsh conditions and are underpaid, they cannot leave their jobs or even the country.

One Nepalese worker told Amnesty that he had not been paid for seven months and had been trying to leave the country for three months..

“Please tell me – is there any way to get out of here? … We are going totally mad,” he said.

The health standards for the construction companies fall well below acceptable standards. Enforcing existing laws would provide significant protection for the migrant workers, says the report. The country can go further by reforming its sponsorship laws that leave migrant workers with little or no options when faced with harsh working conditions and withheld payments.

FIFA, the governing body that runs the World Cup, can do more to pressure Qatar. The group knew as far back as 2011 that there were labor issues in Qatar following meetings with the International Trade Union Confederation. A statement following the meeting affirmed FIFA’s commitment to upholding human rights, but little has been done since, says Amnesty.

“Our findings indicate an alarming level of exploitation in the construction sector in Qatar. FIFA has a duty to send a strong public message that it will not tolerate human rights abuses on construction projects related to the World Cup,” said Salil Shetty.

It took Bhupendra, a migrant worker from Nepal, two years to win compensation for a workplace accident that left him permanently disabled
It took Bhupendra, a migrant worker from Nepal, two years to win compensation for a workplace accident that left him permanently disabled
Amnesty International

Contractors for the building of the World Cup facilities include the Qatar Foundation, who is closely linked to the government, and South Korean group Hyundai Engineering & Construction. Amnesty found that many of the abuses were carried out by the sub-contractors, but said that it is the responsibility of contractors to ensure that they are holding all actors accountable.

“Rigorous prequalification processes for subcontractor selection is not common … It has often been witnessed that main contractors mirror the purported client approach and select based on price, with very little investigation into health, safety or welfare practices of subcontractors,” agreed the Qatar Foundation, in response to Amnesty’s findings.

Disclosure: The Qatar Foundation recently sponsored my attendance at the Wold Innovation Summit on Education in Doha, Qatar. I received no compensation. This reporting in no way reflects the position of the Qatar Foundation.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.