Respect labour rights during World Cup construction campaign – HRW to Qatar

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Construction workers from Bangladesh take a break near new highrise office buildings and hotels still under construction in the new City Center and West Bay district on 24 October 2010 in Doha, Qatar. Photo - The Majalla

Human Rights Watch warned Qatar to honour its commitment to reform employment laws for migrant workers ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, amid fears that stadiums will be built using an exploited labour force.

The New York-based rights watchdog issued a 146-page report titled ‘Building a better World Cup: Protecting migrant workers’ that shed light on Qatar’s recruitment and employment system, where 94% of workforce comprises of migrant workers.

“The government needs to ensure that the cutting edge, high-tech stadiums it’s planning to build for World Cup fans are not built on the backs of abused and exploited workers,” Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East director, said in a statement released at a news conference in Doha.

Dona recently suggested it will replace the current sponsorship scheme with a system of contracts between employers and employees.

HRW insisted that the newly introduced system might not be able to shield construction workers who will be employed for building stadiums and other related infrastructure projects.

“The government needs to ensure that the cutting-edge, high-tech stadiums it’s planning to build for World Cup fans are not built on the backs of abused and exploited workers,” Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director, said.

“Workers building stadiums won’t benefit from Qatar’s general promise to end the sponsorship system. They need a deadline for this to happen before their work for the FIFA games starts.”

The 146-page HRW report is based on interviews with 73 migrant construction workers, as well as meetings and correspondence with government officials, employers, contracting companies, recruitment agents, diplomats from labour-sending countries, and worker advocates.

The report underlined problems that migrant workers face including “exorbitant recruitment fees, which can take years to pay off, employers’ routine confiscation of worker passports, and Qatar’s restrictive sponsorship system that gives employers inordinate control over their employees.”

“Workers reported a range of problems, including unpaid wages, illegal salary deductions, crowded and unsanitary labor camps, and unsafe working conditions,” it said.

Qatari laws also prohibit migrant workers from unionising or resorting to industrial action which is in violation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) regulations which identify free association as a core labour right, the HRW report noted.

Whitson told reporters that the government of Qatar has shown willingness to cooperate, but has not made any commitments so far. “The Qatari government is very open. They have expressed their wishes to work with Human Rights Watch… (But) they have not made any specific commitments and said they need more time,” she said.

She denied that Qatari authorities tried to obstruct HRW’s press conference from being held in Doha. The energy-rich Gulf emirate became the first Arab country in December 2010 to be awarded rights to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

It announced multi-billion-dollar developments in preparation for the global event, including air-conditioned stadiums to cope with high temperature and humidity in the desert state.

HRW said that Qatar may recruit up to one million additional migrant construction workers in the next decade in preparation for the tournament. It said migrant workers already represent 94% of the Qatar’s workforce, the world’s highest ratio of migrants to citizens.

The Qatari Labour Ministry denied that workers are being exploited.

“The Ministry has received no complaint of forced labour and it is inconceivable that such a thing exists in Qatar as the worker may break his contract and return to his country whenever he wishes and the employer cannot force him to remain in the country against his will,” it said in a letter to HRW, an international non-governmental organisation which conducts research on human rights.

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