Huge numbers of migrant labourers from a wide range of Asian countries are working under extreme conditions in Qatar on building facilities for the 2022 World Cup. So far, the result is less football fields, more killing fields.
The Qatari government has acknowledged that in 2012 and 2013, 964 workers from Nepal, India and Bangladesh died in the country. There are also 200,000 workers from the Philippines, 100,000 Sri Lankans and many others for whom we have no figures of casualties.
The International Trade Union Confederation, Amnesty International and others have been campaigning for a massive improvement in health and safety practices on Qatari building sites. The Qatari government has indeed responded and changed the law but there are still huge doubts about whether the changes will be implemented and enforced.
For example, in May, Qatari officials announced plans to abolish ‘kafala’, the medieval bonded labour scheme that allows employers to confine workers to Qatar by refusing an exit visa. But, not only did the plans not completely abolish the exit visa, no timescale was given for the implementation of these reforms, and, indeed, similar promises were made in 2012 and 2013.
In recent days, further announcements have been made to stop construction work in the hottest part of the day and overcrowding in the crude barrack-style accommodation. Again, there are already poorly enforced laws on these issues. The International Labour Organisation found that there was a systematic failure to demonstrate that Qatar had ever taken action against employers who were in breach of laws including on matters like passport retention and unauthorised fee-charging recruitment agents. Additionally, freedom of association and the right to form unions has been the subject of lip service, but no active measures.
What can be done? Firstly, the United Kingdom government and other western governments should ensure that businesses meet their obligations to respect human rights throughout their operation, including acceptable health and safety standards. Second, Qatar should observe International Labour Organization conventions on freedom of association and enforce their laws. Third, companies who take advantage of the repressive industrial relations climate are equally culpable, and those guilty of abusing migrant workers should be disqualified from bidding for UK public contracts.
Finally, the FIFA decision to hold the World Cup in Qatar is hugely controversial with allegations of corruption in the bidding process and worries about the heat in which the matches will be played. But there are no excuses for Qatar’s appalling record on abuses of migrant workers, and if it does not improve, the UK government should demand that Qatar’s right to hold the 2022 World Cup should be removed.
John Monks is a Labour peer and former general secretary of the Trades Union Congress and of the European Trade Union Confederation
Photo: Sean Knoflick
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