DOHA (Reuters) - On the outskirts of Doha, capital of one of the world’s richest countries, migrant workers who have helped build the city’s glittering skyscrapers and luxury shopping malls live in conditions akin to a shantytown.
Clothes hang along a wall at a camp for migrant workers in the Doha Industrial Area next to piles of garbage and abandoned car parts, while petrol from an overflowing tank drips onto the ground and the air reeks of the stench from an open sewer. Indoors, a single rusty hob covered in grime suffices as kitchen equipment.
Bhanu, a Nepalese worker living in the camp, says he puts up with such conditions because he can earn more than he ever could in his own country.
“I‘m here so that I can send money home,” he said.
But as Qatar prepares to host the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament, and is pouring billions of dollars into an infrastructure programme that will require vast numbers of foreign workers, its treatment of migrant labor is coming under the international spotlight.
There is no minimum wage in this tiny Gulf Arab state, so while workers like Bhanu might be glad to have a job when there are few back home and pay is higher, their wages typically range from $8 to $11 a day, and are sometimes as low as $6.75 a day - paltry for a country that boasts a per capita income of around $100,000, one of the highest in the world.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report this month condemning abuses it found in Qatar, calling for an overhaul of labor practices well ahead of the 2022 tournament.
“We met a group of seven Nepali workers at (Qatar’s flagship sports complex) Aspire Zone, who said that their employer had not paid them for nearly four months, and that they wanted to return home to Nepal but their employer refused to give their passports back,” Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Priyanka Motaparthy told Reuters in the Qatari capital.
“We interviewed workers on Doha’s new airport who said they had illegal wage deductions - employers who had taken money out of their monthly paychecks.”
Foreign laborers’ plight contrasts with the rising wealth of Qatar’s own nationals - who account for just 250,000 of the country’s 1.7 million population - which has helped the state, the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, avoid the unrest seen in other parts of the Middle East in the past year.
Last September, the government raised basic salaries and social benefits for Qatari public sector employees by 60 percent, while military staff received 50-120 percent increases.
There were no such pay rises for migrant workers.
Many of those workers, predominantly from India, Nepal and Bangladesh, accumulate significant debts to finance their move to the Gulf, Motaparthy said. Often they arrive without accurate information about the jobs that await them and become trapped in jobs they never agreed to, or receive salaries far below what they counted upon earning.
“Employers are supposed to be responsible for recruitment fees, but nearly every worker we spoke to in Qatar paid their own,” she said.
While foreign contractors are often to blame for worker abuse, human rights groups criticize the Qatari government for not ensuring companies abide by local laws.
Other Gulf states have also been criticized for their treatment of migrant workers, including the United Arab Emirates, where HRW has highlighted hidden charges and other abuses imposed on laborers on a $27 billion cultural project in Abu Dhabi that will host branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums.
However, international human rights organizations say Qatar lags other Gulf states in terms of worker protection, with a sponsorship law seen as one of the most restrictive in the Gulf.
Kuwait and Bahrain have amended their sponsorship rules so workers can change employers after working under a sponsor for three years in Kuwait and for one year in Bahrain. In Qatar, workers need their sponsor’s permission to change jobs no matter how long they have worked, leaving employers with the power to register workers who quit as “absconders” subject to detention and deportation or deny them exit visas, HRW says.
Qatar’s Ministry of Labour did not respond to requests by Reuters for an interview with officials on employment issues. Ministry of Labour Undersecretary Hussein al-Mulla was quoted as saying by local newspaper al-Arab in May that Qatar intended to abolish the sponsorship system and replace it with a contract-based system. He did not give a timeframe.
Human rights and labour activists say the fact that HRW was allowed to hold a news conference in Qatar this month may be a sign that the government, keen to boost its international image ahead of the World Cup, will address problems.
Qatar’s current labour law, passed in 2004, sets a limit on working hours for local and foreign laborers, apart from domestic workers such as housemaids, and makes provisions for workers’ health and safety. It requires employers to pay wages on time each month and bans recruitment agents licensed in Qatar from charging workers fees. It also prohibits employers from confiscating passports, sets strict requirements for workers’ accommodation and bans midday work during summer months.
But inadequate enforcement of the law means employers can pick and choose what protections to give with relative impunity, HRW said.
The law also stipulates that no more than four workers share a room in workers’ accommodation, prohibits the use of bunk beds, and requires employers to provide drinking water, air conditioning and proper ventilation at all worker accommodation.
Yet at three labour camps visited by Reuters there were eight workers per small room, all of whom slept in bunk beds.
“The laws are there. They’re quite detailed and good. And there are significant penalties for breaking these provisions. But there’s no implementation,” said Motaparthy, who met officials at Qatar’s Foreign Affairs Ministry this month.
“The line over and over again from Qatari officials is that this is illegal in Qatar, so it must not be happening.”
As construction on most of the World Cup-specific projects has not yet begun, the number of migrant workers heading to Qatar is likely to rise sharply in the next few years.
The Qatar government, which forecasts a budget surplus of 8 percent of GDP for 2012/13 and revenues of 206 billion riyals ($56.6 billion) thanks to booming revenues from liquefied natural gas, has outlined lavish public investment plans worth $95 billion over five years to 2016.
That will include building roads, public transport facilities, an $11 billion airport, nine state-of-the-art stadiums equipped with cooling technology, and 54 team camps in preparation for the soccer tournament.
Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of the government-run committee overseeing World Cup preparations, acknowledged earlier this year that there were labour issues but said Qatar was committed to reform, and contractors would be required to ensure that international labour standards were met.
HRW has asked the committee to introduce independent monitoring of all its projects.
“They do understand that they are out of step with the global community. They profess to care, but I have very little confidence that we are looking at a government that is really prepared to remedy the situation,” Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), who met with officials from Qatar’s Labour Ministry this month, told Reuters by telephone.
The ITUC has asked to provide a list of companies that it recommends should work on infrastructure projects in Qatar and the government has agreed.
U.S. construction and engineering firm CH2M Hill Inc, which will oversee the construction of World Cup stadiums in Qatar, has said it is working with the government-led committee to develop standards for foreign workers, who are not allowed to join unions in the Gulf state.
For impoverished nations like Nepal and Bangladesh, remittances sent back home from the Gulf by laborers like Bhanu provide a key source of foreign exchange.
But unlike in the UAE, which introduced an electronic wage payment system in 2009, most workers in Qatar are paid in cash rather than via bank accounts, making it difficult to monitor whether they have been paid.
Previous World Cups have provided an opportunity to advance workers’ rights in host countries. Workers in South Africa, host of the 2010 World Cup, and Brazil, due to stage the event in 2014, secured wage rises and health and safety provisions.
Pressure on Qatar to follow suit will only intensify.
“We said to the Foreign Affairs ministry, Qatar has been a leader in calling for human rights in Libya, in calling for the protection of people in Syria. You can be a leader here, too. This is an opportunity,” Motaparthy of HRW said.
Editing by Susan Fenton