Qatar is unfit to host the 2022 World Cup, says Amnesty International

DOHA, Qatar (Reuters) — Migrant workers in Qatar renovating a 2022 World Cup stadium have been subjected to human rights abuses, in some cases forced labor, two years after the tournament’s organizers introduced worker welfare standards in the wake of widespread criticism, according to a report by Amnesty International.

Dozens of construction workers from Nepal and India rebuilding the Khalifa stadium, a vast sporting complex in Doha that will host a World Cup quarter-final in 2022, were charged recruitment fees, housed in squalid accommodation and barred from leaving the country by their employers who confiscated their passports, Amnesty said.

Staff from one labor supply company that worked on the flagship stadium, threatened to withhold pay and report workers to the police to exact labor from migrants which the rights group called “forced labor”.

The ill treatment of workers on a high-profile World Cup project raises questions about recent labor reforms the Gulf state has said will improve the plight of its foreign workforce engaged in a $200bn construction boom and focuses attention on FIFA, whose new leadership is under pressure to ensure Qatar delivers better standards for workers before World Cup construction peaks in 2017.

Renewed pressure on Qatar could threaten goodwill the country has built in recent years by breaking with other Gulf states’ refusal to engage with their critics and holding out the promise of a more constructive relationship with human rights groups and trade unions who have expressed frustration with the government’s slow pace of reform.

Amnesty’s report, based on interviews with 132 workers and facilitated by Qatar’s Supreme Committee who oversee the World Cup, points to abuses by small companies and sub-contractors brought in to work on the Khalifa stadium at short notice and who do not appear to have been vetted by the tournament’s organizers.

Amnesty’s General Secretary, Salil Shetty told Reuters that he believes Qatar “is unfit” to host any major sporting tournament under the current conditions.

“From an Amnesty International perspective we are looking at it from a migrant workers abuse point of view and currently it (Qatar 2022) is totally unfit, there’s no question about it,” Shetty said during an interview at Amnesty’s offices in London. “You cannot have a major sporting event like the World Cup – the world’s largest sporting event happening based, you know, completely built on labor exploitation, that’s simply unacceptable,” he said.

Shetty added that FIFA needs to push for change as the number of migrant workers continue to increase with Qatar ramping up their preparations for the 2022 World Cup.

“If the new leadership of FIFA are going to be watching this for the next six years between now and the World Cup and they end up there in 2022 and you have a World Cup built on the backs of exploitation of laborers I think it’s going to be very, very shameful so this is really a wake up call to the new leadership,” Shetty said.

“We are saying you (FIFA) haven’t done anything for the last five years, it’s still not too late, take action now because this is the first of the stadiums, there are many more to be built. Next year there’s going to be 36,000 workers there, today there’s only about 3,500 – take action now.

“Ninety percent of the Qatar population is migrant workers, there’s only 10 percent local people there. So if you have 90 percent of the population that’s being exploited and the World Cup that’s been created around that exploitation it’s going to be very shameful and I don’t think the football fans are going to accept this.”

Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, James Lynch, said a lot of the migrant workers had been misled when they signed up for employment.

“Many workers are deceived, they are deceived about both the type of work they’re going to be doing, that’s very common; or, even more common, the salary that they will earn,” Lynch told Reuters. “Many workers are enticed to migrate on the basis of inflated promises and when they get to Qatar or other Gulf states, they find that actually they’re going to get paid much less. They may be given a whole new contract to sign.

“Then they’re abuses while in employment and these are, the very common ones are, delayed pay or nonpayment of wages for very long periods. We’ve seen some workers going for many, many months without being paid having worked extremely long hours in very, in sometimes, very harsh conditions.

“People are often living in very poor conditions. You see really squalid accommodation and that’s one of the things we highlight in this report; overcrowded conditions, not proper sewage facilities, even problems with electricity and air conditioning – these are not uncommon.

Since winning the World Cup in 2010, Qatar has spent tens of billions of dollars on a new port, metro system, international airport, roads and stadiums, and recruited hundreds of thousands of men, mainly from south Asia, into its foreign workforce which accounts for 94 percent of the tiny country’s 2.1 million population.

Following intense criticism of its ‘Kefala’ sponsorship laws – a system common across the Gulf that binds workers to their employers by forcing them to seek permission to change jobs or leave the country – Qatar brought in last year electronic payment of workers’ salaries and a rule allowing foreign workers to appeal to the government if their employer does not sanction their leaving the country.

But the reforms could fall short, analysts say, partly because of a murky, and often lucrative, system of chain contracting where large, multinational companies pass responsibility for worker welfare down to smaller subcontractors who engage in fraudulent measures like deceptive recruitment.

“Essentially what the Kefala system says that the sponsor – you can’t work in Qatar if you don’t have a sponsor – and the sponsor effectively has complete control,” Shetty said. “You cannot change your job without the sponsor’s approval. You can’t leave the country without the sponsor’s approval. So effectively, you know, this is where it becomes a situation where workers simply have no rights. So they’re tied into a particular employment, their employers don’t pay them in time, they pay them much less than they’re promised, they don’t give them the benefits they’re promised but they have no choice; they’re just stuck there.

“The most important thing that FIFA needs to do now under its new leadership is a real opportunity for them to tell the Qatari government that they’re not ready to accept World Cup stadiums and a World Cup that is going to be conducted on the backs of labor exploitation. The sponsorship system has to be reformed and labor laws have to be enforced. There’s no point having a law which is not enforced.”

The multi-million dollar contract to renovate the Khalifa stadium, which in 2019 will host the World Athletics Championships, was awarded to a Qatari and a Belgium joint venture, Midmac-Six Construct, but dozens of laborers who were not directly employed by Midmac-Six, Amnesty said, worked on the venue and its surrounding garden.

Seven men from Nepal who worked on the Khalifa Stadium in 2015 told Amnesty they had wanted to return home to check on their families after the earthquakes that hit Nepal in the spring of that year but their employer did not allow them to leave.

Another worker on the stadium said his manager shouted at him and threatened to withhold delayed salary payments after he told him he wanted to quit.

Hundreds of labor supply companies operate in Qatar, often bringing in lowly-paid migrant workers from places like India with the sole purpose of sub-contracting out their labor to other companies, including those operating on World Cup sites.

Having brought workers into Qatar these manpower companies frequently fail to ensure migrant workers are paid on time, Amnesty said, or are provided with documents that require the payment of a fee, such as residency permits.

The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee said in a statement that improving safety and living conditions for the 5,100 construction workers building stadiums – a number that would increase seven-fold to 36,000 in the next two years is its priority and that Amnesty, through its report, had highlighted “malpractices and mistakes that needed to be addressed”.

In a statement written to Reuters, FIFA said it “is fully aware of the risks facing construction workers in Qatar and of the opportunity that FIFA, together with other stakeholders, has to facilitate the improvement of working conditions in the country.

“We remain convinced that the unique attraction and visibility of the FIFA World Cup globally is a strong catalyst for significant change. Since 2011, FIFA has met with key stakeholders, including Amnesty International, to discuss the best way forward to achieve consistent and sustained implementation of fair working conditions on FIFA World Cup construction sites as quickly as possible.

“This is an ongoing process. Challenges remain, but FIFA is confident that the structures and processes set-up so far by the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is the entity responsible for the delivery of FIFA World Cup infrastructure, provide a good basis to monitor labor rights of migrant workers on FIFA World Cup stadium construction sites.

“These processes include the Workers’ Welfare Standards in place since 2014, a compliance check for all tenderers, regular reporting that is publicly available and a four-tier system of auditing. This approach and these measures have been discussed with the key stakeholders, including Amnesty International.

“Furthermore, FIFA will continue to urge the competent governmental authorities in Qatar and other stakeholders to also take action and ensure that such standards become the benchmark for construction projects in Qatar.”