In December 2010, the small Gulf state of Qatar won its bid to host the 2022 World Cup—a first for an Arab country.
Over the next decade the country will undertake massive new construction to support the quadrennial world championship soccer games: its winning bid included commitments to build nine state-of-the-art stadiums equipped with cooling technology to beat temperatures that reach an average high of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) during the summer months, a new airport complete with a sail-shaped terminal, public transport infrastructure, $20 billion worth of new roads, a bridge to neighboring Bahrain (the longest in the world), 54 team camps, and sleek new hotels for spectators. As of mid-2012, a limited number of World Cup-related projects were under construction and new tenders began to be issued for contracts tied to construction of venues for the 2022 games.
Underpinning this push is a vast army of migrant workers, who comprise a staggering 94 percent of Qatar’s workforce—1.2 million of its1.7 million residents—the highest percentage of migrants to citizens in the world. Qatar’s World Cup selection means that worker recruitment will reach new heights: media have reported that over a million additional workers may be needed to carry out World Cup-related construction.
Yet the deeply problematic working conditions of migrant workers throughout the country mean that realizing Qatar’s World Cup vision may depend on their abuse and exploitation unless adequate measures are taken to address the human rights problems widespread in the construction industry in Qatar.
This report documents pervasive employer exploitation and abuse of workers in Qatar’s construction industry, made possible by an inadequate legal and regulatory framework that grants employers extensive control over workers and prohibits migrant workers from exercising their rights to free association and collective bargaining. It also addresses the government’s failure to enforce those laws that at least on paper are designed to protect worker rights. It examines why violations of workers’ rights go largely undetected, and looks at the barriers that workers face in reporting complaints or seeking redress.
Based on interviews with 73 migrant construction workers in Qatar, industry employers, government officials, diplomats, and labor attachésfrom major labor-sending countries, journalists, academics, and worker advocates, as well as correspondence with both government officials and companies, it examines key factors that trap workers in exploitative jobs, including exorbitant recruitment fees, and the restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system that prevents them from changing jobs or leaving the country without a sponsor’s permission. In the worst cases, workers described conditions that amounted to forced labor. At the request of the workers we spoke to, this report does not name their employers.
While we did not focus on World Cup-related projects, which by-and-large had not yet commenced when we undertook our research, we did speak to ten migrant laborers working on locations linked to the World Cup. All reported paying hefty recruitment fees to get their jobs, while some also said that employers abuse their rights by withholding wages or forcing them to work by denying them permission to return home unless they pay sums they cannot afford. Their stories, along with others collected in this report, help illustrate the risk that the building spree ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar could contribute to abuses unless preventive measures are taken by the government and private actors alike, in keeping with their human rights responsibilities.
Hundreds of thousands of male workers—primarily from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—migrate to Qatar to work as low-wage laborers on construction projects. Often from impoverished backgrounds, they hope to support families, gain stable employment and higher wages, and in some cases escape violence or instability at home.
Yet their recruitment process is rife with flaws. Migrant workers interviewed for this report said they paid fees of up to $3,651 to get their jobs, a huge sum in their home countries. They took out loans at high interest rates and mortgaged family property to finance their journeys, which often took them months or years of working in Qatar to pay back.
While workers generally paid these fees to recruiting agencies in their countries of origin, a World Bank study suggests that Qatari recruiting agents receive a substantial portion of these fees in hidden money transfers designed to circumvent Qatari law, which prohibits Qatari agencies from charging fees. In other cases where employers paid the recruiting fees, workers said that some employers then deducted the paid amounts from workers’ wages. Past Human Rights Watch reports in the Gulf found that these fees trap workers in jobs even when employers abuse their rights, leading to forced labor as defined by international law.
Many workers said that recruitment agents told them they would earn higher wages or have more desirable jobs than they found when they arrived in Qatar. After traveling thousands of miles, they said they had little choice but to accept work they had not agreed to perform, and unsatisfactory conditions and practices that included employers withholding wages (typically as security to prevent them from quitting), illegal wage deductions, or salaries far below those promised. Some said they signed contracts under coercive circumstances, while others never saw an employment contract at all.
Workers’ top complaints focused on wages, which typically ranged from $8 to $11 for between nine and eleven hours of grueling outdoor work each day, and were sometimes as low as $6.75 per day. In many cases this amount was less than what recruitment agents had promised workers in their home countries, and workers said it did not cover adequately their food costs and recruitment loan fees. In other cases, workers said they did not receive payment for months. In a letter to Human Rights Watch detailing these issues, officials from the Qatari Ministry of Labor stated that a labor contract may be signed inside Qatar after the worker’s arrival, or in the worker’s home country, and that in either case representatives of both Qatar and the labor-sending country must approve the contract. They added that all contracts must include the minimum requirements of a model contract. However, the model contract does not include a minimum wage guideline, and in cases where workers sign their contracts in Qatar, those we interviewed said they had little choice but to do so, having already incurred recruitment and migration-related debts.
Workers also reported illegal and arbitrary wage deductions for things like visa costs, bedding, food, or health care, even though Qatar’s labor regulations and model employment contract do not specifically permit these deductions and specifically prohibit some. They also reported denial of free movement and lack of access to medical care.
Local regulations set high standards for workers’ housing, allowing companies to house no more than four workers in the same room, banning the use of bunk beds, and requiring employers to ensure potable water, air conditioning, and proper ventilation in all worker accommodations. Yet each of the six labor camps Human Rights Watch visited housed between eight and eighteen workers per room, all workers slept in bunk beds, and some workers said they did not have drinkable water in their own camp. Some said their air-conditioning had been broken for weeks or months without repair despite the high temperatures, and some lived in windowless rooms that stank of mold.
Some workers also told Human Rights Watch they worked under unhealthy and often dangerous conditions, doing construction work on roofs or high scaffolding without safety ropes, or working in deep trenches or enclosed pipes where they risked suffocation. Qatar does not publish data on worker injuries or fatalities, and only some embassies shared this information with Human Rights Watch, making it difficult to estimate the extent to which workers risk their health or safety while carrying out construction. However, according to analysis from the Qatar National Health Strategy, a government healthcare initiative, “Workplace injuries are the third highest cause of accidental deaths in Qatar.” The Ministry of Labor informed Human Rights Watch that only six workers had died in work-related accidents during the last three years, and that all deaths had been caused by falls. However, this contrasts sharply with information received from sending country embassies, which indicate a much higher death rate; for example, the Nepali embassy reported to local media that of the 191 Nepali workers who died in Qatar in 2010, 19 died as a result of work site accidents. A further 103 died after suffering cardiac arrest, though workers do not fall into the typical age group at risk of cardiac failure.
Meanwhile Qatar’s restrictive immigration Sponsorship Law, Law No.14 of 2004 (the Sponsorship Law), leaves workers under the nearly unchecked control of their sponsoring employers. Employers hold the power to cancel workers’ visas, register them as “absconders” subject to detention and deportation, or deny them the exit visas required to leave the country. Coupled with the near universally reported practice of passport confiscation, primarily designed to further discourage workers from quitting jobs without permission, many workers said they did not feel free to quit, even when they said employers had not paid them for months. These controls also left workers fearful of exercising their rights and reporting employer violations.
While the Sponsorship Law requires sponsors to secure work permits for workers in their employ, many workers said that their employers had not completed procedures and secured their residence ID cards. Employers’ failure to complete necessary paperwork or unwillingness to pay related fees left migrant workers at risk of arrest and deportation as unauthorized residents in the country.
Inadequate monitoring and reporting mechanisms allow violations of the labor and Sponsorship Laws to continue. Qatar employs only 150 labor inspectors to monitor the conditions of 1.2 million workers. According to labor ministry officials, none of these inspectors speak languages commonly spoken by workers in the country and inspections do not include worker interviews. Officials told Human Rights Watch that while inspectors monitor housing conditions, payment problems, employment contracts, and working hours, they do so only by visiting sites and reviewing company records.
Without worker interviews, inspectors cannot accurately assess whether workers have possession of their contracts or passports, whether they have paid unlawful recruiting fees, whether they receive the wages or work the hours recorded by their employer, or whether they have faced deception, threats, or conditions of forced labor. While Qatar maintains a labor complaints hotline, it can only receive complaints in Arabic and English, rendering this reporting mechanism effectively inaccessible to most low-wage workers.
Workers who we interviewed said that their fear of losing their jobs and deportation prevented them from using many of the current mechanisms by which workers may enforce their rights in Qatar. Workers could seek assistance at the Labor Complaints Department, part of the Labor Ministry, where government employees conducted dispute resolution between workers and their sponsoring employers. Worker advocates told Human Rights Watch that the Complaints Department effectively resolved many complaints, but that workers who sought help had to be prepared to end their employment relationship and support themselves while awaiting resolution. Workers who turned to the Complaints Department stopped receiving salaries and could no longer stay in company camps after their employers received notice of their complaint, they said.
While the head of the Labor Complaints Department told Human Rights Watch that it resolved 80 percent of workers’ complaints, the department does not publish data on complaint resolution outcomes, nor does it publish the decisions in individual cases. This means it remains unclear whether workers receive full restitution or fair remedies, or whether they forfeit their rights in the dispute-resolution process. In response to a request from Human Rights Watch, Labor Ministry officials provided the precise number of complaints received and the number referred to civil courts, but did not provide information on the types of resolutions achieved or the number of cases in which employees received compensation.
Embassy officials and worker advocates reported that workers in distress who failed to resolve their complaints through the Complaints Department or through embassy-mediated attempts at resolution typically chose to forfeit their rights rather than pursuing cases against their employers that could take months or years to resolve. Without their original job or permission to transfer sponsorship to a new employer, many workers had no source of income and could ill-afford to pursue court claims.
According to data provided by the Ministry of Labor to Human Rights Watch, while their complaints department referred 1,279 cases to Qatari courts in the last three years, only 100 cases, less than eight percent of the total, received sponsorship transfer, though Qatar’s Sponsorship Law requires it whenever a legal case is pending between an employer and a worker. This means that in 92% of cases, workers who had filed complaints had no choice but to continue working for their employer during the course of the proceedings against their employer, or to forfeit their rights and leave the country.
While the Sponsorship Law also allows sponsorship transfer in cases of abuse, the Qatar National Human Rights Committee (NHRC), which handles hundreds of worker complaints, reported that the ministry had denied 80 percent of the NHRC’s requests to transfer workers’ sponsors, though the group had reviewed workers’ cases and in each case determined they had strong reasons for transfer.
Qatar’s current Labor Law, passed in 2004, provides some strong protections by setting maximum work hours per week, requiring paid annual leave and end-of-service bonuses, and making provisions for workers’ health and safety. It requires employers to pay workers’ salary on time each month and bans recruitment agents licensed in Qatar from charging workers fees. It also bans employers from confiscating passports; sets strict requirements for workers’ accommodations; and bans midday work during the hot summer months.
An International Labour Organization (ILO) member since 1972, the government has ratified conventions protecting workers against forced labor, discrimination in employment and occupation, and prohibiting child labor. In 2009, the government ratified the UN Trafficking Protocol, and in October 2011, passed domestic legislation criminalizing human trafficking and sanctioning managers of corporations whose businesses involve human trafficking.
However, inadequate implementation and oversight of current legal provisions mean they rarely translate to worker protections in practice and that employers can pick and choose what protections to offer, with relative impunity. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, officials from Qatar’s Labor Ministry state that “the Ministry has received no complaint of forced labor and it is inconceivable that such a thing exists in Qatar, as the worker may break his contract and return to his country whenever he wishes and the employer cannot force him to remain in the country against his will.” However, conditions of forced labor are not obviated by the right of a worker to break his contract and return home. When workers owe onerous recruiting fees, are not free to find new employers, and do not have custody of their passports, they are, in fact, very likely to be in conditions of forced labor, as defined by international law.
In other instances, Qatar’s laws themselves facilitate abuse and prevent workers from effectively advocating for their interests. Qatar has not signed key international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Qatar has no minimum wage, and while the Labor Law allows Qatari workers to unionize, it prohibits migrant workers from joining unions. In making this distinction, the law discriminates against migrant workers in violation of international law. Local law makes it impossible for workers involved in World Cup construction to engage in collective bargaining and push for better protections, as workers in South Africa and Brazil—hosts of the 2010 and 2014 World Cup—did, gaining wage increases and improved health and safety provisions.
The Labor Law also does not require public reporting on workplace injuries and fatalities or specify that employers should be responsible for workers’ recruitment fees, while the immigration Sponsorship Law prevents workers from changing employers at will, allowing only workers who have filed abuse claims to seek permission to do so.
Without immediate and significant reforms, the migrant workers upon whose labor the World Cup 2022 depends remain at high risk. The local organizing committee for the World Cup, the Supreme Committee for Qatar 2022, which has oversight and coordination responsibilities with regard to World Cup-related construction, “aims to achieve the best conditions to organize and accomplish World Cup 2022,” according to the Emiri decree that established this body. According to Decree No. 27 of 2011, the Supreme Committee’s tasks, among others, include working to create “an enabling environment to organise and accomplish the World Cup 2022 in all legal, regulatory, physical, social and economic development aspects.” The committee’s Secretary General Hassan Al Thawadi, during a January 17 2012, address at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, stated that “there are labor issues here in the country, but Qatar is committed to reform. We will require that contractors impose a clause to ensure that international labor standards are met.”
Obtaining contractual guarantees for workers’ rights could be a critical and significant first step towards ensuring better protections, if the clauses are comprehensive, enforceable, and fully uphold internationally recognized fundamental labor rights. For example, any such clause should clearly address the serious problems associated with recruitment fees and retention of workers’ passports or other identity documents. However, for the government to adequately protect migrant workers’ rights, further legal and policy reforms are needed. In May 2012 Qatari media quoted Labor Undersecretary Hussein Al Mulla as saying that the government was considering the establishment of a Qatari-led labor committee to advocate for workers’ rights, and that the government would replace the sponsorship system with “a contract between the employer and the worker.” However Al Mulla specified that the composition of the board (and decision-making entity) of any workers’ committee would be restricted to Qatari citizens, and that foreign workers could only vote to elect board members. While the comments regarding the government’s willingness to reform sponsorship are a welcome indication, there does not appear to be a clear timetable for such reforms, and it is not clear whether they would be implemented before major construction on World Cup-related projects is commenced. Furthermore, the proposal for an elected body to advocate for workers’ rights falls far short of international labor law requirements for free association, which includes the right of workers to freely organize without interference from or discrimination imposed by the government, as well as the right to strike.
If the Qatari government wishes to avoid human rights abuses while building world-class stadiums, ambitious transportation links, and luxury hotels in the tight timeframe ahead, it should take steps to meaningfully enforce the laws protecting workers’ rights it currently has on the books, and should amend laws to meet international labor and human rights standards, in particular by allowing migrant workers to exercise their rights to free association and collective bargaining.
The government should take steps to ensure that workers have full and accurate information about their jobs and salaries before they leave their home countries. It should amend the Labor Law to specify that employers, not workers, pay all recruitment and work-related visa fees and must provide evidence that they have done so.
Qatar should also stringently enforce its ban on passport confiscation, repeal the exit visa requirement, and allow workers to change jobs without sponsor consent. It should monitor employment sites, including by interviewing workers, to ensure that existing Labor Laws are enforced, and should publish data on worker injuries and deaths. Employers found to have violated worker rights should receive penalties commensurate with the seriousness of the abuse, and designed to discourage abuses from taking place, including reimbursement of recruiting fees paid by workers.
If Qatar ensures that there is effective investigation and prosecution for offenses under the Labor Law, it will provide significantly stronger protections for the country’s migrant workers. But by retaining other laws and practices, such as the Sponsorship Law, and not addressing the wide-scale practices of recruiting fees and passport confiscation, Qatar continues to facilitate abusive work conditions in the country that in some cases amount to forced labor.
In response to pressure from international workers’ unions, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)–the governing body of association football—has made a public commitment to workers’ rights, including the rights of the migrant workers who will build the stadiums and accommodations for the Qatar 2022 games. In November 2011, after a meeting with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Jerome Valcke, secretary-general of FIFA, stated that “FIFA upholds the respect for human rights and the application of international norms of behaviour as a principle and part of all our activities.” FIFA and ITUC would, he said, “work jointly over the next few months to address labour issues with the Qatari authorities.” Valcke also noted that FIFA had “agreed to add labour-related criteria to the bidding process of future FIFA World Cups.” In addition, FIFA’s corporate social responsibility commitments include the aim to use its influence to help make “positive impacts” through football.
Human Rights Watch wrote to FIFA on May 10, 2012, to inquire about steps FIFA has taken or plans to take in keeping with its human rights commitments. We also encouraged the football body to use its influence to help ensure positive impacts of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in ways that address workers’ rights, such as by monitoring to ensure that international labor standards are followed in connection with World Cup-related contracts. FIFA had not provided a response by the time this report was finalized for publication.
At time of writing, few of the US $100 billion in new projects were underway.
Some government infrastructure improvements tied to Qatar’s World Cup preparations, including a high-speed railway system and metro system, a Qatar-Bahrain causeway, and the completion of the New Doha International Airport, were in progress. In addition, in the first half of 2012 the local organizing committee for the World Cup, the Supreme Committee for Qatar 2022, began to issue tenders for contracts tied to World Cup competition and training venues. This Supreme Committee, which has oversight and coordination responsibilities with regard to World Cup-related construction, awarded the World Cup 2022 program management contract to a US firm, CH2M HILL, to help it oversee construction of World Cup 2022 facilities.
Human Rights Watch sent letters to the Supreme Committee and CH2M HILL on May 15, 2012, to inquire how they will ensure that all public and private entities involved in construction related to the 2022 World Cup fully uphold human rights, including labor rights, in keeping with the obligation of the government of Qatar to protect human rights and the widely recognized principle that businesses also have a responsibility to respect human rights. CH2M HILL’s corporate policies, and a public statement by the secretary-general of the Supreme Committee, address labor protections. Human Rights Watch sought details on how those commitments would be carried out, including in contractual requirements for World Cup-related construction, and clear and public pledges to undertake certain concrete measures to prevent, mitigate, and address abuses of worker rights that are prevalent in Qatar and could otherwise arise in World Cup construction projects. In response, the Supreme Committee informed us that that it aims to ensure working conditions that meet or exceed international standards and that under its three-year strategic plan it had pledged to improve conditions for construction workers generally as well as to establish minimum standards for workers involved with the World Cup, in relation to such issues as pay, health, and safety. The Supreme Committee added that it had already begun the process of drafting both employee rights’ policies and determining the workers’ rights commitments it will require from companies hired to carry out World Cup contracts, and said that it hoped the initiative would serve as a catalyst for positive change. While this is a welcome response, the Supreme Committee did not address the recommendation that it make specific, concrete, and public commitments to address the problems of migrant workers as outlined in this report.
CH2M HILL, for its part, responded by stressing its strong commitment to respect and protect workers’ human rights, as reflected in company ethics and business principles, which include a “zero-tolerance policy for the use of forced labor or other human trafficking practices.” The company noted that they were working with the Supreme Committee to develop “mandatory contract language and assurance protocols” to address standards for workers at Qatar 2022 World Cup sites. The company emphasized, however, that the construction projects its client directly oversees are for competition venues and other sports-related facilities which are not yet under construction, and that its commitments to establish labor standards relate to such sites. CH2M HILL’s reply did not make clear what measures, if any, the Supreme Committee might apply in relation to World Cup-related construction projects for which it plays a coordinating role, although Human Rights Watch’s letter included specific queries about this and other issues. Nor did the company address the recommendation that it publicly pledge to address the various workers’ rights problems raised in our research.
In addition, Human Rights Watch contacted companies who have construction management responsibilities for the World Cup-related locations where workers alleged abuses as described in this report: the Aspire Zone and the new Doha International Airport. Human Rights Watch shared information on the alleged abuses, reported by workers who said they were hired by contractors operating on those sites or by employment agencies, rather than directly by the companies themselves. We invited the companies’ responses as well and sought pledges regarding worker protections.
Aspire Logistics, which manages the Aspire Zone, explained that it includes clauses protecting workers’ rights in contracts, that it employs a third-party project manager to monitor compliance of contractors and subcontractors with such provisions, and that any violations by contractors are subject to penalty or legal sanction. The company, however, said that it did not have legal control over the actions of subcontractors, who it acknowledged may abuse workers’ rights. To address such situations, Aspire Logistics pledged to prepare a list of approved subcontractors following a review to determine which ones adhere to Qatari law as well as the Aspire Zone’s own requirements.
While such vetting may prove useful to avoid rehiring subcontracting firms with poor track records, it fails to provide accountability for current or past abuses. To provide full accountability, Aspire should penalize any contractors found to have hired subcontractors who abuse workers and terminate contracts with those found to have done so repeatedly. Regarding the wider set of problems documented by Human Rights Watch for this report, Aspire Logistics said it would take the issues and recommendations into consideration. It also committed to offer seminars to educate workers on their rights under Qatar’s Labor Law. The company, which stressed that it strictly follows Qatari law, said that it complies with the requirement to reimburse fees in the case of employees hired locally but acknowledged that this requirement did not cover migrant workers hired overseas.
Bechtel replied by describing its role as project manager at the New Doha Airport, which includes a responsibility to manage contractors and subcontractors, including by establishing labor standards and following up on contractual requirements that address working conditions, accommodations, and health and safety, among other issues. Citing the two labor disputes it said had arisen since its contract began in 2004, Bechtel said it used a “proactive approach” that entailed mediating a resolution in both cases. The company stressed the matter of worker safety and said that its training had helped ensure a low accident rate at the airport site. Regarding the allegations of passport confiscation, illegal salary deductions, or deception in recruitment raised by construction workers at the airport employed by labor contracting companies, Bechtel said that “we do not claim to have all the answers, but we continue to strive to make a difference in those areas where we believe we can have the most impact,” leaving unclear whether it felt the issues raised by those workers—including payment of recruitment fees and retention of their passports—fell into that category. Although the company said that it felt the airport project “should be credited for its efforts to achieve positive labor conditions,” it did not address Human Rights Watch’s recommendation that it publicly pledge to adopt various measures to address workers’ rights, including arranging for independent monitoring of workers’ conditions on projects under their supervision and issuing public reports on the findings.
Human Rights Watch contacted those companies and entities whose work is specifically addressed in this report, but the issues raised are relevant to a wide set of public and private actors. In light of our research documenting the prevalence of abusive conditions for workers in Qatar’s construction industry, Human Rights Watch strongly encourages all companies in that industry to publicly pledge to respect the rights of all workers associated with their projects and to undertake concrete measures to prevent, mitigate, and address abuses of worker rights. The specific measures we recommend include action by companies involved in construction in Qatar, including contractors and subcontractors involved in the construction of World Cup-related facilities, to abide by Qatari law and international labor standards. Specifically, they should agree to: take all possible steps to ensure no workers have paid fees associated with their recruitment and commit to reimbursing workers who have paid any such fees in contravention of local law, including if the fees were paid to labor agencies or other intermediaries; strictly prohibit the retention of workers’ passports or other identity documents, including by subcontractors or intermediaries, and ensure that safe storage facilities where they can access such documents are made available; and ensure that all workers receive and sign enforceable employment contracts in a language that they understand prior to their migration.
They should also agree to ensure on-time payment in full of workers’ wages from the first month of their employment, to be paid into bank accounts on a no-less-than monthly basis; ensure adequate housing facilities for all workers in accordance with domestic and international standards; and provide guarantees that they will respect workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining and include provisions to this effect in workers’ employment contracts. Finally, they should arrange for independent monitoring of workers’ conditions on their projects or projects under their supervision, and issue public reports on workers’ conditions, including worker injuries and deaths, so as to effectively monitor conditions at World Cup-related sites and ensure that the games do not rest upon worker abuse and exploitation.