Qatar — Human Rights Group denounces Qatari exploitation of World Cup workers

A lead­ing human rights group has joined the inter­na­tion­al trade union move­ment in using Qatar’s host­ing of the 2022 World Cup to pres­sure the ener­gy-rich Gulf state to bring migrant labor con­di­tions in line with inter­na­tion­al stan­dards and allow for the emer­gence of inde­pen­dent trade unions that can engage in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing.

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At the launch of a 146-page report, “Build­ing a bet­ter World Cup: Pro­tect­ing migrant work­ers,” Human Rights Watch joined the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tion (ITUC) in reject­ing Qatari moves to fend off a glob­al cam­paign call­ing for a boy­cott of Qatar and strip­ping its right to host the tour­na­ment because of migrant labor con­di­tions.

The report that doc­u­ments a host of prob­lems, includ­ing unpaid wages, ille­gal salary deduc­tions, crowd­ed and unsan­i­tary labor camps, and unsafe work­ing con­di­tions was launched a day after Qatari labor min­is­ter Nas­sir bin Abdul­la Hami­di met for the first time since trade unions last year start­ed pres­sur­ing the Gulf state with ITUC sec­re­tary gen­er­al Sha­ran Bur­row.

Dur­ing the meet­ing on the side line of the gen­er­al assem­bly of the Inter­na­tion­al Labor Orga­ni­za­tion in Gene­va, Mr. Hami­di refused to go beyond pro­posed changes for work­ers’ coun­cils rather than inde­pen­dent trade unions and the replace­ment of Qatar’s spon­sor­ship sys­tem with a sys­tem of con­tracts between employ­ers and employ­ees that does not give work­ers full free­dom to seek alter­na­tive employ­ment. Ms. Bur­row was quot­ed after the meet­ing as say­ing that Qatari con­ces­sions failed to meet ITUC demands for appli­ca­tion of inter­na­tion­al stan­dards.

Qatar has repeat­ed­ly denied that it exploits for­eign labor. The Qatari Labor Min­istry denies that work­ers are being exploit­ed. “The Min­istry has received no com­plaint of forced labor 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,” the min­istry said in a let­ter to Human Rights Watch.

The human rights group pub­lished the let­ter as part of its report on the same day that Qatar-owned Al Jazeera Eng­lish broad­cast inter­views with for­eign work­ers stand­ing in front of the labor min­istry in Doha to com­plain about the fact that their employ­ers had not paid them for months.

For­eign labor accounts for more than 90 per­cent of Qatar’s work­force in a coun­try with the high­est per­cent­age of migrants to cit­i­zens in the world.

The ITUC with 175 mil­lion mem­bers in 153 coun­tries has threat­ened Qatar with a boy­cott cam­paign of the 2022 World Cup if it fails to bring the con­di­tions of up to one mil­lion pri­mar­i­ly Asian work­ers engaged in con­struc­tion of sta­di­ums and oth­er huge infra­struc­ture projects in line with inter­na­tion­al stan­dards. It is has prompt­ed world soc­cer body FIFA to also pres­sure Qatar and is demand­ing that FIFA make labor con­di­tions one of its cri­te­ria in award­ing future world cups.

The Human Rights Watch report doc­u­ments what the group describes as “per­va­sive employ­er exploita­tion and abuse of work­ers in Qatar’s con­struc­tion indus­try, made pos­si­ble by an inad­e­quate legal and reg­u­la­to­ry frame­work that grants employ­ers exten­sive con­trol over work­ers and pro­hibits migrant work­ers from exer­cis­ing their rights to free asso­ci­a­tion and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing.” It also address­es the government’s fail­ure to enforce laws that on paper are designed to pro­tect work­er rights and lays bay that work­ers face in report­ing com­plaints or seek­ing redress.

“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,” Human Rights Watchs’s Mid­dle East direc­tor Sarah Leah Whit­son said at the launch of the report in Doha. “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 report focus­es among oth­er issues on work­er safe­ty, high­light­ing the dis­crep­an­cy between the num­ber of con­struc­tion work­er deaths report­ed by for­eign embassies and the num­ber report­ed by the gov­ern­ment. Like ITUC, the report uses the report­ing on Nepali deaths as one of its case stud­ies.

While the Nepali embassy report­ed 191 Nepali work­er deaths in 2010, and the Indi­an embassy report­ed 98 Indi­an migrant deaths — includ­ing 45 deaths of young, low-income work­ers due to car­diac arrest, so far in 2012 — the labor min­istry list­ed only six deaths in the past three years.

The Human Rights Watch fol­lows an ear­li­er ITUC study that equat­ed the work­ing con­di­tions of pri­mar­i­ly Asian for­eign labor­ers in Qatar as mod­ern-day slav­ery. Ms. Bur­row said in a state­ment pri­or to her meet­ing with Mr. Hami­di that she would “set out for Qatar’s Labor Min­is­ter the legal steps the gov­ern­ment needs to take to ensure free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for its huge migrant work­force. Labor laws intro­duced in Qatar should be in line with inter­na­tion­al stan­dards as set out by the ILO. The law needs to allow work­ers the right to form and join their own unions, and freely elect their own rep­re­sen­ta­tives with­out the gov­ern­ment dic­tat­ing who they can vote for,” she said.

Ms. Bur­row not­ed that labor con­di­tions were one rea­son why the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee (IOC) last month dis­qual­i­fied Qatar’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics. “The IOC’s eval­u­a­tion of Doha’s Olympics bid stat­ed ‘train­ing and accom­mo­dat­ing an expe­ri­enced Olympic Games work­force to deliv­er this infra­struc­ture with­in the required time­frame presents a major chal­lenge and risk,’” she said.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.