May 2, 2014

King Juan Carlos is visiting Kuwait and Bahrain this week, after Abu Dhabi and Qatar two weeks ago in a series of visits to the gulf region that will also take him to Oman and Saudi Arabia over the next two months. He is traveling with a high-level delegation that includes the ministers of foreign affairs, transport, defense and energy, as well as the heads of some of Spain’s biggest companies. They hope to boost trade relations with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council as Spain struggles with near-record 26 percent unemployment. There are golden opportunities in GCC countries for big corporations seeking contracts and expansion opportunities, particularly in construction, ranging from preparation for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to ExpoDubai2020. But as Spanish companies go after this business they should be aware that abuse of construction workers is rife in GCC countries and make firm commitments to uphold workers’ rights.

International media outlets have recently criticized Qatar for inhumane conditions that have led to exploitation -- and in some cases, the deaths -- of migrant workers.  As a country that is spending hundreds of millions to host the world’s most important football event, Qatar has started to pay attention to the reputational risk associated with the substandard working and living conditions for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. Its neighbor, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has come under criticism for abuses on Saadiyat island, a cultural hub that is hosting universities and museums such as the Guggenheim.

Construction and engineering companies design and construct the buildings and infrastructure for these projects, and business and architecture magazines laud the speed, efficiency and innovation of the Gulf’s construction sector. However, the dark side of the story is found in the labor camps that house the south Asian workers whose labor makes it all possible.

Human rights organizations and the media have shone a spotlight on the appalling living and working conditions for these low-wage migrant workers.  In Gulf countries, migrants are forced to work under a highly exploitative system of sponsorship-based employment that ties them to one employer for the duration of their stay. Employers   typically hold the workers’ passports, and the workers incur large debts to recruiters in their home countries who got them the jobs—adding to the difficulty of leaving.

For workers abused under this system, access to legal and judicial remedies is extremely limited, and employers are rarely, if ever, prosecuted for violations of labor law. As a result, workers frequently experience hazardous, sometimes deadly, working conditions, long hours and unpaid wages, and are forced to live in cramped and unsanitary housing.

While governments in the region are primarily responsible for their failure to reform abusive laws and practices or otherwise enforce protective labor laws, businesses also have a responsibility to protect workers’ rights and create safe working environments for their employees.  These responsibilities were enshrined by the United Nations when it approved the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.  In the construction industry, companies can, for example, ensure that they and their affiliates pay workers on time and in full, set policies for maximum working hours and overtime pay, and provide decent accommodations.

Many international corporations in various industries, from oil extraction to garment manufacturing to electronics, have understood that they have human rights responsibilities and have adopted policies and procedures to safeguard human rights. In the UAE the government entities behind the high-profile Saadiyat Island project ultimately made a commitment to improve and uphold human rights standards. And in Qatar, the quasi-governmental Qatar Foundation and the 2022 World Cup organizers have drawn up comprehensive labor standards for all projects under their control.

The effectiveness of these codes has yet to be demonstrated, but it is clear that companies involved in the construction industry in the Gulf can commit to human rights standards for the workers in their projects, including employees of contractors and sub-contractors.  Companies that abide by strict regulations in their home countries based on well-established labor laws and best practices should not drop these at the door as they enter Riyadh or Dubai. They should bring their standards with them, and help the host countries rise to the level they aspire to when they welcome world events and Hollywood stars.

Providing minimum protections and guarantees to migrant workers involved in their projects in the Gulf would also protect these corporations, including the Spanish ones, from reputation and legal risks.

The CEOs traveling with the King of Spain should be ambassadors for the best professional and ethical standards when doing business overseas.  Showing and promoting a good example will help Spanish companies be good business partners that respect their workers’ dignity. 

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Tamara Alrifai is Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.