The flagrant abuse of migrant construction workers is routine in the Gulf states
One construction worker a day dies as Qatar seeks to build facilities for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. That’s the finding of The Guardian newspaper, which characterizes the conditions facing migrant workers in the country as “slave labor.”
Qatar, along with other Gulf nations, uses the so-called “kafala” system, under which each foreign worker hired to in the country needs a “sponsor,” usually their employer. Permission from the sponsor is needed to enter or leave country, or to change jobs. The company is also responsible for issuing IDs, without which workers are reduced to the status of foreign aliens with no legal protection.
The system in practice leaves the migrant workers at the mercy of their employers, who can refuse to pay wages, withhold documents and thus leave workers stranded, force them to work long hours in hazardous conditions and exploit and abuse them in other ways.
Qatar has the highest ratio of migrant workers to domestic population, according to the nation’s cable TV network Al Jazeera. The Arab monarchy, enriched by the sale of natural gas, has a population of roughly 1.7 million, with 94 per cent believed to be foreigners, mostly unskilled workers. The country is expected to hire up to 1.5 million more laborers to build the stadiums, roads, ports and hotels needed for the 2022 tournament.
The Guardian reported Wednesday that desperate people from Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest nations, make up 40 per cent of the laborers in Qatar. Between June 4 and August 8 at least 44 of them died, the newspaper said, citing documents obtained by the Nepalese Embassy in Doha. More than half the deaths were due to heart attacks, heart failure and workplace accidents, the newspaper said.
Other evidence cited by the newspaper points to horrific conditions for migrant workers. Some said they were forced to work long hours in temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius without access to drinking water. Many complained that they were not paid for months and were unable to pay off their debts to recruiting agents at home, yet alone send money back to their families.
One worker told journalists how his manager assaulted him for complaining about being forced to work on an empty stomach for an entire day. He was then kicked out of the labor camp and had to beg for food from other workers.
Some of the reports came from Lusail City development, a $45 billion city where Qatar plans to erect a 90,000-seater stadium that will host the World Cup final. FIFA pledged that it will address concerns over labor rights in Qatar after giving the kingdom the right to host the World Cup.
“The evidence uncovered by the Guardian is clear proof of the use of systematic forced labor in Qatar,” said Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International. “In fact, these working conditions and the astonishing number of deaths of vulnerable workers go beyond forced labor to the slavery of old where human beings were treated as objects. There is no longer a risk that the World Cup might be built on forced labor. It is already happening.”
Qatar is to spend an estimated $100 billion on infrastructure projects to support the World Cup. As well as nine state-of-the-art stadiums, the country has committed to spend $20 billion on new roads, $4 billion for a causeway connecting Qatar to the island nation of Bahrain, $24 billion for a high-speed rail network, and 55,000 hotel rooms to accommodate visiting fans. In addition, Qatar has almost completed a new airport.
When asked for a response, the Qatari Labor Ministry said it had strict rules governing working conditions and the prompt payment of salaries.
“The ministry enforces this law through periodic inspections to ensure that workers have in fact received their wages in time,” the ministry said in a statement. “If a company does not comply with the law, the ministry applies penalties and refers the case to the judicial authorities.”
The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, the body tasked with organizing the World Cup, said it was“deeply concerned with the allegations that have been made against certain contractors/sub-contractors working on Lusail City’s construction site and considers this issue to be of the utmost seriousness.”
“We have been informed that the relevant government authorities are conducting an investigation into the allegations,” it added.
Lusail Real Estate Company said: “Lusail City will not tolerate breaches of labor or health and safety law. We continually instruct our contractors and their subcontractors of our expectations and their contractual obligations to both us and individual employees. The Guardian have highlighted potentially illegal activities employed by one subcontractor. We take these allegations very seriously and have referred the allegations to the appropriate authorities for investigation. Based on this investigation, we will take appropriate action against any individual or company who has found to have broken the law or contract with us.”