Many immigrant workers dying in Qatar

Malaysian trade unionists supporting the Building and Woodworkers International campaign to investigate all Qatar construction deaths

From daily News Line in Britain:

Wednesday, 16 April 2014


On International Workers Memorial Day, 28th April 2014, it is time to call the 2022 World Cup in Qatar by its proper name: a humanitarian crisis, says the International Labour Organisation.

At least 1,380 workers from India and Nepal are confirmed to have died since 2010, when Qatar was first awarded the tournament. Construction is only just beginning to get fully underway.

The twelve stadiums that remain to be built are just a small fraction (6%) of the planned World Cup infrastructure projects. There will be a new airport, metro lines, roads, a proposed bridge to Bahrain, 100-plus hotels and much more.

As the kick-off approaches, up to a million additional migrant workers – who already make up the vast majority (94%) of the country’s population of two million – will flood into Qatar. Under the feudal Kafala system of control operated in Qatar, the migrant workers are effectively bonded labour, unable to leave their jobs or the Emirate without permission of employers.

Trade unions are banned while laws are routinely flouted. Workers can look forward to sharing overcrowded and squalid accommodation in labour camps run by slumlords and patrolled by security guards.

Non-payment of wages and food shortages are a common complaint. Leaving the country and going home is not an option; employers confiscate workers’ passports and the Kafala system means they have terrible problems in obtaining exit visas to allow them to leave the country.

Maybe if you’re lucky, after several years of service your company manager will allow you to go home for a few days to visit your loved ones; that is, if you leave a deposit of a few hundred dollars to ensure your return to work.

The Indian embassy in Doha has published figures showing that a total of one thousand and twenty Indian workers have died in Qatar. Seventy Indian expatriates have died in Qatar so far this year including five in the Duhail gas explosion, according to information registered with the embassy. 26 deaths have been registered during March alone.

The number of deaths registered in the embassy over the last four years is as follows: 233 in 2010, 239 in 2011, 237 in 2012, and 241 in 2013. The embassy of Nepal in Doha confirmed that 191 Nepalese workers died in Qatar in 2013, many of them from heart failure, taking the total to at least 360 over two years.

Whether the cause of death is labelled a work accident, heart attacks brought on by life-threatening effects of heat stroke, dehydration, lack of proper nutrition, lack of rest and sleep and the stress of long working hours and lack of basic dignity and freedom, or from diseases from squalid living conditions, the root cause is the same – exploitative and abusive working conditions. Thousands of people are literally being worked to death.

FIFA Complicit

FIFA deflects responsibility for the behaviour of its host countries. We’re just a football organisation, not a lawmaking body, FIFA likes to say. It has called the situation in Qatar a ‘complex matter’.

However FIFA tries to spin this, it is complicit. At what point will it draw the line? Are 1,380 dead too many? Will FIFA take action when the toll of apparently disposable migrant workers reaches 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000?

FIFA must impose respect for International Labour Standards as a condition of contract for all infrastructure works associated with the World Cup in Qatar.

Sending country governments complacent

In a recent visit to the Indian embassy in Doha, a trade union delegation from the Building and Woodworkers International was startled by the elite scepticism of officials they met.

Instead of simply saying that such deaths are normal, the Indian government should investigate these deaths and provide clear and transparent information on the causes. We want to know who these people were – how old they were and what work they were doing – and how they died.

Last September, Nepal recalled its ambassador in Qatar, Maya Kumari Sharma, after she called the Gulf state an ‘open prison’ for Nepalis who suffer labour abuses, and amid outrage about labour conditions and deaths.

A cabinet meeting decided to sack Sharma after Qatar complained about her comments. ‘The government has decided to recall the ambassador as her comments and behaviour went out of the diplomatic norms,’ said Bimal Gautam, an aide to the chairman of interim cabinet Khilraj Regmi.

Migrant remittances account for about a fifth of Nepal’s gross domestic product. The governments of India and Nepal should work urgently with the Qatari government and other governments across the Gulf to address the serious labour abuses experienced by Indian and Nepali migrant workers.

They must also step in to control the activities of unscrupulous labour agencies who are ruthlessly exploiting and cheating vulnerable young men who are prepared to work hard in construction and who have big dreams of making good money in the richest nation on earth.

Governments must protect the rights of their citizens and ensure that they do not pay recruitment fees, that contracts are honoured, that wages will be paid in full and on time and that both living and working conditions in Qatar are of a good standard and are safe and healthy.

Qatari Authorities Must Act

It is clear that there is a desire on the part of the Qatari authorities to improve living and working conditions for migrant construction workers, and that is evidenced by many new charters and standards which have recently been developed and others which are in the pipeline.

The great challenge, it is acknowledged, is that of practical implementation and enforcement of standards. However, our conclusion is that, in the absence of real rights and legal protections that meet international standards, Migrant workers in Qatar will not be properly protected.

For the BWI the only acceptable standards are the internationally recognised labour standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The BWI will continue to campaign for all workers in Qatar to have the right to form and join a union, to organise, to have representation on working conditions, health and safety and collective bargaining – rights enshrined in international standards.

Without trade union rights and participation there can be no credible system to ensure workers rights and health and safety.

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