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[Amnesty Report] “Workers in Qatar trapped in forced, unpaid labour”; Prominent projects employing exploited labour include those of QP, Sidra, HMC, Q22

[Amnesty Report] “Workers in Qatar trapped in forced, unpaid labour”; Prominent projects employing exploited labour include those of QP, Sidra, HMC, Q22
Vani Saraswathi

In a hard-hitting report on the exploitation of migrant construction workers in Qatar, Amnesty International has lashed out at the country’s laws governing migrant workers and the lax enforcement of the laws that afford some protection to low-income migrant workers. It states that the sponsorship system is a recipe for exploitation and forced labour.

The lead researcher on this report, James Lynch, points out that because the system is permissive, if an employer is unscrupulous, then it makes it easier for them to abuse it.

The findings of the report – ‘‘The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup’ – have been presented to Qatar’s Prime Minister, Labour Minister and other senior officials including the Qatar 2022 Organising committee.

The report names some of the biggest companies and projects in Qatar, as party to severe violation of migrants’ rights. Some of the stakeholders include, Qatar Petroleum, Hamad Medical City, Qatar Foundation SEG, Sidra, Hyundai E&C, OHL Construction, Krantz Engineering, Indian Trading and Construction Co and PCSI.

The most high profile of the projects written about in the report is the Ras Laffan Emergency and Safety College, which was inaugurated a few days ago by HE the Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani. This involved several migrants working for a sub-contractor, Krantz Engineering, on this project (see below for details of the case).

Other case studies recorded include those employed in the ‘FIFA cluster’ of projects. Nepalese employees working on the Sheraton Park project, part of the cluster, complained of cattle-like treatment where in they were made to work 12 hours, all days of the week even during the scorching summer months. Smaller sub-contractors who are directly responsible for non-payment of salaries and poor living conditions, say the reason is cash-flow problems, and non-payment of fees by larger corporations.

Access to Justice

Legal recourse is not easy either. The report highlights that workers are routinely asked by the Labour Court to pay a fee of 600 riyals, under the pretext of fee for an investigation report. This is in breach the Labour Law, which states that “all lawsuits filed by the workers or their heirs claiming the entitlements accruing under the provisions of this law or the service contract… shall be exempted from judicial fees.”

One of the recommendations put forward is to establish a system of state-funded legal aid to allow workers to hire lawyers to pursue cases and to enable victims to gain equality of “arms and effective redress.”

Many workers reported that employers cut their pay if they took a day-off because they are unwell.” – Amnesty International

Speaking to JustHere, Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty said, “We raised this as a major obstacle for people to access justice. It’s not a question of providing aid. We don’t think it’s right to have this in the first instance. These groups of workers shouldn’t be charge this fees. The logic of having this in the first place is to prevent or deter frivolous cases. The problem with the way the system is designed here is that they have a blanked approach for all cases…It’s a similar approach for exit permits.”

Many of the construction workers who spoke to Amnesty International reported arriving in Qatar to find that the terms and conditions of their work were different from those that they had been promised, either verbally or in writing. “In some cases the promises were made by recruitment agents or brokers in their home countries; in other instances by their employer in Qatar. Some workers told Amnesty International that they had signed agreements in their home countries but had these removed on arrival in Doha – either by their recruitment agent, or by their employer – and were either given new “agreements” in Arabic, or simply informed of the real terms and conditions of their work.”

Following Amnesty’s investigations, many of the project owners and main contractors did promise to take action.
For instance, OHL that had used PSCI as a sub-contractor on the Sidra Project said that it shared Amnesty’s “concern and disquiet by the negligent behaviour of our subcontractor PSCI [sic] towards its employees” but could not require PCSI to comply with its obligations towards its workers because at this point it had no contractual relationship with them.

While Amnesty saw this as a positive move, it also noted that project owners should have their own processes, to be “capable of detecting that its subcontractors were engaged in this kind of behavior.”

…officials from all government bodies tend to downplay the scale of the abuse that migrant workers are subjected to in Qatar.” – Amnesty International

The numbers

Amnesty writes that for many of Qatar’s biggest projects, the ultimate owner or client is a Qatari institution, which is part of – or closely linked to – the government. “The Middle East Economic Digest estimates that between 2012 and 2020, there will be US$117.5 billion-worth of capital spend by the Qatari government on projects. This is then awarded to various locally registered construction companies to execute. According to the most recent census data, there were 2,519 construction companies in Qatar as of 2010.”

Fuelled by demands from the construction industry, there has been a major influx of migrant workers into the country. With about 88% of the total population constituting “foreign workers”, Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world.

However, a lot has been reported about the health and safety standards at the construction work sites. Falling from heights were a major mishap, with Hamad Medical Corporation figures quoting more than 1,000 people were admitted to the trauma unit in 2012 out of which 10% were left disabled. A “significant” mortality rate was also reported.

Other prominent issues that surfaced during the research were:

  • Non-payment of wages
  • Poor standards of accommodation – overcrowding, lack of sanitation, no air conditioning or running water.
  • Forced unpaid labour
  • Blackmailing

With no aid from anywhere, many workers were found to suffer from severe psychological depression resulting in suicidal tendencies.

Cash flow problems

Most of the sub-contractors who violate employee rights cite cash flow problems.

“Ask anyone … There is a big cash-flow problem. [Name of European contractor removed] take 160 days to pay when they are supposed to pay after 90 days. [Name of East Asian contractor removed] pay after 90 days when they are supposed to take 45 days… You book 100 thousand riyals [US$27,463] to pay for IDs [residence permits], then the sponsor [Qatari majority shareholder] is not in Doha [to carry out procedures]. Then you reallocate money. You have a terrible cash-flow. Call all the contractors you know, they have cash-flow problems… We’re not making money. Look at this email sent to [Name of Qatari contractor removed], the top line says, ‘Seriously this is like begging.’”

The Embassy of a labour-sending country also confirmed to Amnesty that they receive such complaints.

“Managers of companies come to the Embassy and say they are bankrupt because they haven’t been paid. Since January [2013], we have had lots of such cases. Managers are saying they are not getting their own salaries. So if that is happening, where is the solution?”

In a statement, Salil Shetty added: “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.

“Construction companies and the Qatari authorities alike are failing migrant workers. Employers in Qatar have displayed an appalling disregard for the basic human rights of migrant workers. Many are taking advantage of a permissive environment and lax enforcement of labour protections to exploit construction workers.

“The world’s spotlight will continue to shine on Qatar in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup offering the government a unique chance to demonstrate on a global stage that they are serious about their commitment to human rights and can act as a role model to the rest of the region.”

Amnesty’s key recommendations can be read here.

Voices

“There are individuals [in the local community in Qatar] who learn our situation, they give help, they come here, bring food, bring water. That sort of thing relieves us from the needs. But the impact in not sending money to the Philippines is one big question in our minds. We cannot stay relaxed thinking that our [family] is not eating well in the Philippines.”

“My wife is crying. Who is responsible for this? Are the government? Or this company? … We came out here because of the difficulties we have in India, and then we come here and we can’t even have three meals a day… This money we want is not for our pleasure, it’s to pay back debts. Why can they not understand this? My wife has mortgaged her gold … Every time I eat a meal, I just wonder if my family has anything to eat. Each and every day I think the same thing, because my family is suffering.”

Report Highlights:

Case Study 1: Violations by Krantz Engineering on the Ras Laffan Emergency and Safety College Campus

In 2010 Krantz Engineering (Krantz), a subcontractor providing “electro-mechanical engineers and contractors”, began working on the RLESC site for SEG Qatar, one of the main contractors. The contract was due to last until the end of 2011 but there were apparently delays in completion of the project and it continued into 2012.
Additionally, Krantz had failed to arrange for large numbers of its workers to be issued with residence permits or for their residence permits to be renewed after expiring, meaning that these workers could not leave until large fines were paid to the Ministry of Interior.

“It has been horrible. I don’t know why I came here. I consider this to be the worst phase of my life. My father passed away while I was struggling here; I couldn’t leave to see him for the last time even after begging CID, crying and falling at their feet.”
31-year-old Indian heating and ventilation supervisor formerly employed by Krantz Engineering on the project, speaking in May 2013.

“I would like to express our disappointment at the way in which you have treated almost 100 Indian workers who came to Qatar with lots of dreams. You have not only not paid them for months but made them to get money from India to pay the penalty and return to India.”
Letter from the Deputy Chief of Mission, Indian Embassy in Doha to Krantz Engineering, dated 21 May 2013.

“The workers were adamant. They would only work if they were paid.”
Managing Director of Krantz Engineering to Amnesty International, March 2013.

Electronic information system, a step in the right direction

In October 2013, responding to Amnesty International’s findings, the Government of Qatar said it had begun an initiative to prevent contract substitution:

“The Ministry of Labour is in the process of implementing a programme for electronic connection with labour exporting countries. Cooperation between the Ministries of Labour will be in the form of establishing an electronic information base for those seeking jobs in Qatar. The website will allow employers in Qatar to choose their workforce from the available applications. This project will ensure there will no longer be any discrepancy between the job the worker has signed up for in his country from that signed in Qatar…

“In the case of any disagreement between the two sides in the future the information can be checked and verified.”

Some Progress

Q22 and the Qatar Foundation (QF) have been transparent about the fact they are working together on workers’ standards. In April 2013, the QF – which is one of the country’s biggest developers of high-value, high-profile construction projects – published its own workers’ charter and mandatory standards with a press release stating that the standards “guarantee workers rights”.

The QF also stated that a major pillar of its approach involves ensuring that workers who work on its projects have been recruited in an ethical manner, including without taking on debts to pay fees to migrate to Qatar for work. Given that Q22 is chaired by the Head of State, it is reasonable to expect that the committee should be able to work at a high level within the Qatari government to secure broad reforms to protect the rights of migrant workers.

Amnesty Report in Numbers

The Amnesty report is based on the research conducted by Amnesty International officials during their visits to Qatar in October 2012 and March 2013.

  • Individual interviews with 101 migrant workers in the construction sector.
  • 8 group interviews, covering 130 people, were held with construction workers.
  • Individual interviews with 79 migrant workers in different sectors.
  • 47 women working as domestic workers interviewed.
  • 20 labour camps visited, that house construction workers. Researchers were prevented by representatives of companies from entering 3 camps.
  • 14 meetings with government representatives, including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Labour, the Supreme Council for Family Affairs and the Supreme Council for Health.
  • 2 visits were conducted to the deportation centre, two to the central prison, and one to the central police station.
  • Amnesty International engaged with 22 companies involved in construction projects in Qatar.
  • Interviews were carried out with 7 foreign embassies in Qatar, including embassies of 3 labour-sending countries.
The System For Migrant Workers In Qatar: 10 Key Facts

1. Every migrant worker in Qatar must have a “sponsor”, who must also be his or her employer. Domestic workers are usually sponsored by an individual, such as a member of the family in whose house they are working.

2. Migrant workers cannot change jobs without the permission of their sponsor. If workers leave their sponsor without permission, they are considered to have “absconded” – a criminal offence – and their sponsors are required to report them to the Search and Follow-up Department (sometimes called “CID” by migrant workers) of the Ministry of Interior, which polices the Sponsorship Law.

3. Migrant workers also cannot leave the country without their sponsor’s permission. They must obtain an “exit permit” from the authorities.

4. Sponsors are required by law to return their employees’ passports to them after completing residence procedures. In reality, most low-income migrant workers do not have their passports returned to them.

5. Migrant workers should be issued residence permits (which are issued in the form of ID cards) to demonstrate their right to work and live in Qatar, and to allow them access to a range of basic services. It is up to sponsors to arrange with the authorities for these critical documents to be issued. Workers without residence permits or whose permits have expired may be suspected of having “absconded” and detained as a result. Workers are fined for not having valid permits; these fines must be paid for them to leave Qatar.

6. The Labour Law, and a set of related decrees, sets out workers’ rights in Qatari law, including limits on working hours, mandated annual leave, living conditions, health and safety and the requirement for salaries to be paid on time. The Ministry of Labour is responsible for overseeing the Labour Law’s implementation.

7. If workers have complaints against their employer and consider that their rights under the Labour Law have been breached, they can complain to the Labour Relations Department of the Ministry of Labour. If the Ministry cannot negotiate a resolution of the complaint, the case is referred to the Labour Court, where workers can file civil cases against their employer.

8. Under the Labour Law, migrant workers are prohibited from joining or forming trade unions.

9. While the Labour Law applies to construction workers, domestic workers and some other groups of workers are excluded from the terms of the Labour Law, meaning that under Qatari law there are no limits on their working hours, and they cannot complain to the Ministry of Labour if their rights are being breached.

10. Sponsors are expected to provide their employees with housing in Qatar. For construction workers, this is normally in dormitory-style “labour camps” with communal bathrooms and kitchens. Since 2011 it has been illegal for labour camps to be located in “family areas”, referring essentially to districts where Qatari families live. Domestic workers are usually housed in the same home or compound as their employer.

(Inputs from Cassey Oliveira)

Copyright © 2013 JustHere Qatar. Reproduction of material from any JustHere Qatar pages without written permission is strictly prohibited.

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