[Amnesty Report] “Workers in Qatar trapped in forced, unpaid labour”; Prominent projects employing exploited labour include those of QP, Sidra, HMC, Q22
- Vani Saraswathi
- On November 18, 2013
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.”
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.”
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
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 , 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.
“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.”
(Inputs from Cassey Oliveira)
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