Last week, I attended the launch event for the first of the new stadiums set to be built in Qatar, for the FIFA 2022 World Cup. The event saw members of the building press from around the world invited to witness the designs for the 40,000-seat Al Wakrah stadium, as well as gain a briefing from the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee about the status of its programme.
Aside from the design itself (by London-based architects Zaha Hadid), which hasn’t won universal acclaim, much of the focus of the subsequent commentary has been on the issue of workers’ conditions in Qatar. This is understandable. Ever since reports emerged about the deaths of 32 Nepalese workers in the month of July alone – 23 of which were linked to construction sites – there has been a lot of international media coverage about the harsh climate faced by many expatriate labourers.
Although some of this has bordered on the hysterical, there is a clear case to answer. A report by Amnesty International last week recorded a litany of complaints from workers who arrive in the country, through a sponsorship system, which is open to abuse.
Amnesty found that 90 percent of workers had their passports held by employers, 56 percent were not given a government health card needed to access hospitals, and 21 percent ‘sometimes, rarely or never’ received wages on time. One in five were also paid a different salary than promised.
Yet Q22’s secretary-general was unequivocal in his comments about workers’ conditions.
Speaking about fatalities, Hassan Al Thawadi said: “For us, any number above zero is unacceptable. We’re working towards ensuring that stays that way.”
He also said that Q22 had “very clear standards” that it expected its contractors to adhere to, including a Workers’ Welfare charter drawn up earlier this year, which looks to protect workers’ health, safety and dignity.
The charter also pledges that workers are paid on time, and prohibits retaliation against anyone who takes up grievance procedures against a company, based on their rights under Q22 rules or Qatari laws.
There will be many commentators who will argue that it is easy to draw up charters with high-minded morals, which, of course, is true. But since Q22 has yet to break ground on any of its projects (enabling works for the first site will start early next year), it should be given the chance to prove itself.
To do this, it needs to be willing to take proper sanctions against any contractors found to have breached the rules. A hefty workers’ charter drawn up by Qatar Foundation in April promised “corrective measures” against offenders. It warned that violations of its code “may lead to termination of contract”.
Q22 held a meeting with Amnesty last week and said it “valued the contribution” made by the report. It also pledged to keep a “productive dialogue” in the run-up to the World Cup. This should be praised. Now, as with the stadiums themselves, it is all about the delivery.