'Labour abuse' at Qatar World Cup venue exposed

'Labour abuse' at Qatar World Cup venue exposed
5 min read
02 April, 2016
Migrant workers building Khalifa International Stadium in Doha for the 2022 World Cup have suffered systematic abuses, in some cases forced labour, Amnesty International alleges in a new report.
Most of the workers interviewed were from Bangladesh, India and Nepal [Getty]

Migrant workers have faced abuse, with some cases amounting to forced labour, while working on a stadium that will host football matches for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, a new report by Amnesty International has alleged.

Many rights groups and news organisations have previously raised serious concerns about working conditions in Qatar, but the latest report by Amnesty International links alleged mistreatment directly to work on a World Cup venue.

"The abuse of migrant workers is a stain on the conscience of world football," said Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty.

"For players and fans, a World Cup stadium is a place of dreams. For some of the workers who spoke to us, it can feel like a living nightmare."

Qatari officials said they were concerned by a number of features of the report and promised to investigate further.

Labour law reforms are a "work in progress", said Doha officials.

Amnesty compiled the 52-page report based on interviews from February to May last year with 132 construction workers at the Khalifa International Stadium, one of several arenas that will host World Cup matches.

The London-based group interviewed 99 migrants doing landscaping work in a surrounding sports complex that is not directly related to the games, and three other gardeners working elsewhere.

Foreigners account for roughly 90 percent of the 2.5 million people living in Qatar, many of them low-paid migrant workers from South Asia. Most of the workers interviewed in the Amnesty report were from Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

All of those interviewed reported some kind of abuse, including crowded living quarters, salary payments being withheld for months, and measures including passport confiscation that make it difficult to leave the country. Migrant workers elsewhere in Qatar have reported similar problems previously.

"My life here is like a prison. The work is difficult, we worked for many hours in the hot sun," said a Nepali metal worker.

"When I first complained about my situation, soon after arriving in Qatar, the manager said 'if you [want to] complain, you can, but there will be consequences. If you want to stay in Qatar be quiet and keep working'."

Some Nepali workers also said they were not even allowed to visit their loved ones after the 2015 April earthquake that devastated their country leaving thousands dead and millions displaced.

Some Nepali workers were not even allowed to visit their loved ones after the 2015 April earthquake that devastated their country leaving thousands dead and millions displaced

Many said their sponsoring employer failed to obtain or renew their working permits, leaving the workers subject to fines and detention.

Each reported going into debt to pay recruitment fees - illegal under Qatari law - ranging from $500 to $4,300 to secure work.

On arrival, most discovered that they would be paid less than promised by recruiters back home.

Some of those interviewed reported earning basic salaries of well below $200 a month, plus allowances of around $50 a month for food.

"Indebted, living in squalid camps in the desert, paid a pittance, the lot of migrant workers contrasts sharply to that of the top-flight footballers who will play in the stadium," Shetty added. 

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The forced labour allegations involve workers employed by at least one small labour supply company contracted to provide manpower on the stadium project.

The report includes comments from five workers who described being forced to work against their will after trying to leave or refusing to work because of pay disputes.

A metal worker from India who worked on the Khalifa stadium refurbishment, complained when he was not paid for several months but only received threats from his employer:
 
"He just shouted abuse at me and said that if I complained again I'd never leave the country. Ever since I have been careful not to complain about my salary or anything else. Of course, if I could I would change jobs or leave Qatar."

Indebted, living in squalid camps in the desert, paid a pittance, the lot of migrant workers contrasts sharply to that of the top-flight footballers who will play in the stadium
- Salil Shetty, Amnesty International Secretary General

Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty's Gulf migrant rights researcher, said he believes many other workers face similar situations, but confirmed that was difficult because of the challenges in reaching workers and the risks they face in speaking to researchers.

He acknowledged that Qatari authorities have taken some steps to improve labour conditions, but said they must put far more priority on the issue as preparation for the games intensifies.

"Clearly there's a problem here. Whatever they've done has not been enough to prevent abuse," he said. "What we'd like to see is not excuses but actual action."

Qatar has announced planned changes to its kafala employee sponsorship system, which critics say leaves workers open to exploitation and abuse.

The system, versions of which are used throughout the oil-rich Gulf States, gives bosses considerable power over workers by effectively binding them to a given employer and, in Qatar's case, forcing them to secure exit permits before they can leave.

Changes signed into law by Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani last October are designed to make it easier for employees to change jobs or leave.

Workers still won't be able to immediately change jobs or depart whenever they want, however, and the changes don't take effect until later this year.

The government has already made other changes, including moving some labourers into improved accommodations and instituting a "wage protection system" to tighten oversight of salary payments.

It says it is committed to doing more, calling its reform efforts a "work in progress", adding in a statement on Thursday that worker welfare remains a top priority.

"Though many of the points raised by Amnesty have already been addressed through recent legislative changes, we are concerned by a number of allegations contained within the report," the government said in a statement.

The government ministry overseeing labour issues will investigate contractors named in the report, it added.

"Despite five years of promises, FIFA has failed almost completely to stop the World Cup being built on human rights abuses," Amnesty's Shetty stressed.

"All workers want are their rights: to be paid on time, leave the country if need be and be treated with dignity and respect."