Qatar treatment of workers branded 'apartheid'

Report by rights group says World Cup host is a 'country without a conscience' where grown men are 'treated like animals'
(Photo for illustrative purpose only)
By Daniel Shane
Mon 17 Mar 2014 02:22 PM

Foreign workers in Qatar are being kept in an “apartheid situation”, according to a new investigation into labour conditions, where they are “treated like animals” and forced to live in squalor.

The report, by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), is one of the most damning indictments of the FIFA World Cup 2022 host yet, describing the Gulf state as a “country without a conscience”.

Among the abuses alleged by the ITUC’s study into the oil and gas-rich country was that up to 38 foreign labourers at Qatar’s Al Wakrah Stadium being forced to share a single, squalid room. It also claimed that employers were demanding $275 to be paid by workers before they were allowed to leave for holidays, while more than 2,500 Indonesian maids were fleeing abusive sponsors annually.

The ITUC’s report featured numerous anonymous testimonies from Qatar’s community of 1.4m foreign workers from countries including India, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines.

The investigation called on World Cup organiser FIFA to pressure Qatari authorities to end the country’s kafala sponsorship system, which prevents workers from moving jobs without the permission of employers.

“Poor migrant workers living in squalor, are forced to work long hours in unbelievable heat six days a week. Kept in an apartheid situation they are dying in unprecedented numbers,” the report’s foreword read.

It also alleged that women and children in the country without male sponsors were often victims of abuse including rape, while foreign embassies were encouraged to keep quiet for fear of retaliation of authorities or disrupting remittance flows.

Qatar is facing heightened scrutiny and criticism for migrant workers’ rights in the lead up to the 2022 World Cup, where it is expected to spend up to $140bn on new infrastructure, including a metro, port and airport.

More than 450 Indians working in Qatar have died in the past two years, according to Indian government figures obtained by news wire AFP under right of information laws.

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According to the Indian embassy in Qatar, 237 workers died in 2012 and 218 in 2013 up to December 5, at a rate of 20 fatalities each month.

The figures follow similar data revealed to AFP by the Nepalese embassy in Doha, showing 191 deaths recorded in 2013, with many of them from "unnatural" heart failure, compared with 169 the year before.

The ITUC previously estimated that as many as 4,000 workers will die on World Cup building sites before the World Cup in 2022 if the present fatality rate continues.

The International Monetary Fund has also warned that the country could face higher labour costs as a result of publicity about deaths of migrant construction workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament.

FIFA also has demanded the Gulf state explain how it is improving welfare and living conditions for workers on World Cup projects. It is due to discuss the issue of migrant workers and initiatives that FIFA can take during a meeting of the Executive Committee on 20-21 March.

In a report presented to the European Parliament earlier this year, the Qatar World Cup organising committee promised that contractors who build its stadiums will be held to high standards on the welfare of migrant workers, although the standards were not widened to include all construction workers in the country.

The country has also drawn up a new Workers’ Welfare Standards document in response to the outcry over the treatment of workers at World Cup facilities, which sets out regulations "throughout the entire chain of contracting, from recruitment to repatriation".

It includes greater scrutiny of worker payments, comprehensive specifications for worker accommodation, as well as more labour inspectors to support the new welfare standards all overseen by a Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy.

The document was heavily criticised by rights groups, however. “The reality is that all foreign workers across the country are still subject to the restrictive sponsorship system which facilitates abuse,” said James Lynch, a researcher on migrant workers’ rights in the Gulf for Amnesty International.

"There are also serious questions relating to the implementation of these standards. In our experience enforcement is almost always the stumbling block. We need to know how the Supreme Committee will effectively address non-compliance by contractors and subcontractors,” he added.

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