Qatar’s construction frenzy ahead of the 2022 World Cup is on course to cost the lives of at least 4,000 migrant workers before a ball is kicked, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has claimed.
However, this dramatic situation, which received great press coverage last week due to an investigation published by The Guardian newspaper, is not new. In May and June 2011, a Human Rights Watch research team travelled to Qatar to conduct in-depth interviews with migrant construction workers. They interviewed local residents who help migrant workers in distress, representatives from four embassies of countries that send significant numbers of migrant construction workers to Qatar, local employers, local recruitment agents, and Qatari government officials. Through their research, they found that in Qatar workers are forced to work in slavery conditions, which led to their deaths in many cases. See Abridged HRW’s Report Despite their reports, letters and requests for governments, companies and the FIFA to take steps to protect workers from abuse and exploitation, nothing has been done in these two years, and the situation is getting worse rather than better.
The key factors which trap migrant workers in Qatar in exploitative jobs are: the exorbitant recruitment fees that nearly all of the workers have to pay in order to obtain their jobs; the restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system that prevents workers from changing jobs or leaving the country without a sponsoring employer’s permission. In addition, there is an inadequate legal and regulatory framework to protect workers’ rights. Most notably, Qatari law prohibits migrant workers from forming trade unions, in violation of these workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and the government fails to enforce adequately current laws that, at least on paper, are meant to protect worker rights. In some cases, the exploitation and coercive circumstances in which workers found themselves amount to conditions of slavery and human trafficking.
ITUC has also been scrutinising builders’ deaths in the Gulf emirate for the past two years and said that at least half a million extra workers from countries including Nepal, India and Sri Lanka are expected to flood in to complete stadiums, hotels and infrastructure in time for 2022 World Cup.
The annual death toll among those working on building sites could rise to 600 a year – almost a dozen a week – unless the Doha government makes urgent reforms, it says.
The ITUC has based the estimate on current mortality figures for Nepalese and Indian workers who form the bulk of Qatar’s 1.2 million-strong migrant workforce, the large majority of whom are builders.
The stark warning came after a Guardian investigation revealed that 44 Nepalese workers died from 4 June-8 August this year, about half from heart failure or workplace accidents. Workers described forced labour in 50C heat, employers who retain salaries for several months and passports making it impossible for them to leave and being denied free drinking water. The investigation found sickness is endemic among workers living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions and hunger has been reported. Thirty Nepalese construction workers took refuge in their country’s embassy and subsequently left the country, after they claimed they received no pay.
The Indian ambassador in Qatar said 82 Indian workers died in the first five months of this year and 1,460 complained to the embassy about labour conditions and consular problems. More than 700 Indian workers died in Qatar between 2010 and 2012.
Without changes to working practices, more workers will die building the infrastructure in the runup to the World Cup than players will take to the field, the ITUC has warned.
«Nothing of any substance is being done by the Qatar authorities on this issue,» said Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the Brussels-based organisation that has met the Qatari labour minister in Geneva and officials at the Qatar 2022 supreme committee, which is preparing the country for the World Cup.
«The evidence-based assessment of the mortality rate of migrant workers in Qatar shows that at least one worker on average per day is dying. In the absence of real measures to tackle that and an increase in 50% of the migrant workforce, there will be a concominant increase in deaths.
«We are absolutely convinced they are dying because of conditions of work and life. Everything the Guardian has found out accords with the information we have gathered from visits to Qatar and Nepal. There are harrowing testimonies from the workers in the system there.»
It is estimated that Qatar, the world’s richest country by income per capita, is spending the equivalent of £62bn from its gas and oil wealth on building transport infrastructure, hotels, stadiums and other facilities ahead of the World Cup.
The ITUC has estimated the number of migrant workers already in Qatar at over 1.2 million and says possibly as many as 1 million more will be needed to get the country ready for the world’s biggest sporting event. The ITUC’s own analysis of deaths this summer appears to tally with the Guardian’s investigation. It found that 32 Nepalese workers died in July, many of them young men in their 20s. «Nepal accounts for less than half the migrant workers in Qatar, and reports from other countries-of-origin indicate that similar numbers of workers from these countries are losing their lives in Qatar,» Burrow said.
FIFA IN CONSPIRACY WITH QATARI AUTHORITIES OVER SLAVERY
Qatar has one of the most restrictive sponsorship laws in the Gulf region, as workers cannot change jobs without their employer’s permission and all workers must get their sponsoring employer to sign an “exit permit” before they can leave the country. Qatar workers have no right to transfer sponsorship without their employer’s consent regardless of how long they have worked for that employer. Qatar’s Sponsorship Law prohibits the confiscation of passports, but workers report that their passports are confiscated by their employers upon arrival. 2004 Labor Law provides, on its face, some strong protections for workers in the country but also has significant gaps and weaknesses, including no minimum wage, a ban on migrant workers unionizing or engaging in collective bargaining and the complete exclusion of domestic workers.
The secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation has accused FIFA of being in «conspiracy» with the Qatari authorities over «slave labour» conditions faced by migrant workers building facilities for the 2022 World Cup.
Burrow said the organisation was not doing enough to address what was happening, adding to the Associated Press: «If FIFA really were serious, then their power to hold the World Cup with decent work or to withdraw it would be enough for the Qataris to sit down and talk.»
She added that, after a meeting in November 2011, FIFA had said it would address the situation — but had still not done so.
The problems with the extreme summer heat — already a major talking point amid plans to move the World Cup to winter for the first time in its history — are thought to be posing substantial health risks, with some workers claiming they have been refused free drinking water.
FIFA’s Executive Committee met in Zurich 3-4 October to discuss the timing of the 2022 World Cup. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC, said the union movement fully shares the concerns over the health and safety of players and spectators, but is deeply disappointed that the vastly more serious situation of the workers building the infrastructure for the Qatar World Cup is not being considered by FIFA.
A record number of Nepalese workers died in the searing heat of July this year. Thirty-two workers died, many of them young men in their twenties.