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(Doha) – Hundreds of thousands of mostly South Asian migrant construction workers in Qatar risk serious exploitation and abuse, sometimes amounting to forced labor, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Both the government and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) need to make sure that their commitments to respect workers’ rights in preparation for the 2022 World Cup are carried out. Construction contractors should also make specific, public commitments to uphold international labor standards,.

The 146-page report, “Building a Better World Cup: Protecting Migrant Workers in Qatar Ahead of FIFA 2022,” examines a recruitment and employment system that effectively traps many migrant workers in their jobs. The problems they face include exorbitant recruitment fees, which can take years to pay off, employers’ routine confiscation of worker passports, and Qatar’s restrictive sponsorship system that gives employers inordinate control over their employees. Workers’ high debts and the restrictions they face if they want to change employers often effectively force them to accept jobs or working conditions they did not agree to in their home countries, or to continue work under conditions of abuse, Human Rights Watch found. Workers face obstacles to reporting complaints or seeking redress, and the abuses often go undetected by government authorities.

“Workers building stadiums won’t benefit from Qatar’s general promise to end the sponsorship system: they need a deadline for this to happen before their work for the FIFA games starts,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to ensure that the cutting edge, high-tech stadiums it’s planning to build for World Cup fans are not built on the backs of abused and exploited workers.”

Human Rights Watch found that Qatar has one of the most restrictive sponsorship laws in the Gulf region, as workers cannot change jobs without their employer’s permission, regardless of whether they have worked two years or 20, and all workers must get their sponsoring employer to sign an “exit permit” before they can leave the country. Saudi Arabia is the only other Gulf country that retains the problematic exit permit system, while other countries now allow workers to change jobs after serving out their contract or after a two-to-three-year period with their first employer. In May, Deputy Labor Minister Hussein al-Mulla announced that Qatar may replace the sponsorship system with contracts between employers and employees, but failed to specify how these contracts could replace current immigration laws or whether workers would be entitled to switch jobs.

Qatari laws also prohibit migrant workers from unionizing or striking, though the International Labour Organization (ILO) identifies free association as a core labor right. A recent government proposal for a “worker’s union” fails to meet minimum requirements for free association by restricting all decision-making positions to Qatari citizens, Human Rights Watch said.

Migrant workers comprise a staggering 94 percent of Qatar’s workforce, and the country has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world. The country may recruit up to a million additional migrant construction workers in the next decade to build the stadiums and infrastructure improvements Qatar promised in its bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 73 migrant construction workers for the report, and met and corresponded with government officials, employers, contracting companies, recruitment agents, diplomats from labor-sending countries, and worker advocates.

Workers reported a range of problems, including unpaid wages, illegal salary deductions, crowded and unsanitary labor camps, and unsafe working conditions. All but four of the workers said they paid recruitment fees ranging between US$726 and $3,651, borrowing from private money lenders at interest rates that ranged from 3 to 5 percent per month to 100 percent interest on their debt per year.

“We don’t complain because if we complain for anything, the company will punish us,” Himal K., an 18-year-old construction worker from Nepal told Human Rights Watch. Most workers told Human Rights Watch they feared the consequences of complaining to their employers or to the authorities.

“If I don’t pay [my debt], the bank will kick my family out from my house,” said Mahmud N., a 27-year-old Bangladeshi worker who said he owed 270,000 Bangladeshi taka (US$3,298) in recruitment fees.

“The Qatar government and companies in the construction industry need to make sure that employers, not impoverished workers, are paying these recruiting fees,” Whitson said. “Until the government seriously enforces its laws to make sure it is the employers who are paying these fees, and imposes serious penalties on companies that look the other way, this problem is not going to just disappear.”

Human Rights Watch said most workers it interviewed had mortgaged their homes or sold off family property to obtain their jobs, and thus faced tremendous pressure to stay in their jobs regardless of the conditions. Nearly all said that their employers had confiscated their passports, and some said employers refused to return passports when requested. The ILO has identified passport confiscation as a key indicator of forced labor, particularly when combined with the threat or possibility of financial penalties, turning workers over to police, firing them, or preventing them from obtaining other employment – all common fears of construction workers in Qatar.

Dinesh P., a 20-year-old Nepali worker, said that he and 15 others employed at his company wanted to quit their jobs and return home, but that they would not do so.

“We feel like we were cheated, we didn’t get the jobs we were expecting,” he said. Because they could not change jobs without their sponsor’s permission, he and his colleagues had to decide between forfeiting their employment and continuing under conditions to which they said they had not agreed.

“I have this loan so I’ll end up staying,” he said.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch, Labor Ministry officials stated 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.”

“It’s deeply disturbing that the Labor Ministry denies the problem of forced labor, when Qatar’s laws and employment practices enable this very type of situation,” Whitson said. “When you have thousands of workers who are scared to quit jobs and who only complain as a last resort, it’s past time to face up to the problem.”

A number of the key actors in the 2022 World Cup preparations have made public promises to uphold worker’s rights, but have not yet made the specific public commitments that Human Rights Watch has urged. The local organizing committee for the tournament, the Supreme Committee for Qatar 2022, as well as the company it appointed to help it oversee World Cup construction, CH2M HILL, has said they will establish labor standards that builders and other contractors hired to build World Cup venues must meet. In correspondence with Human Rights Watch, they also said they are considering using mandatory contract language to set out these requirements. FIFA has pledged to raise worker rights issues with the government of Qatar.

Those commitments are a beginning, Human Rights Watch said, but additional steps are needed. FIFA should urge the Supreme Committee for Qatar 2022, the official body formed to manage the 2022 World Cup, to require private contractors involved in World Cup-related construction to set minimum employee standards in line with Qatari law and international labor standards. Any minimum standards the Supreme Committee sets for contractors should strictly prohibit confiscation of workers’ passports and require that contractors take all possible steps to ensure that workers do not pay recruiting fees or reimburse workers who do pay them. The Supreme Committee should also engageindependent labor monitors to publicly report on contractors’ compliance with Qatari law and international labor standards, Human Rights Watch said. The group also called on private contractors to publicly commit to protect the rights of all workers associated with their projects, including in relation to recruitment fees and worker passports.

“The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee has said that it plans to conform to or surpass international labor standards through labor policies,” Whitson said. “What the international community needs to hear are specific, public, and enforceable commitments from them and the construction companies. FIFA should also push for such action, given its public promise to promote labor rights in Qatar.”

The report addresses concerns about worker safety in Qatar’s construction industry. It highlights disturbing discrepancies between the number of construction worker deaths reported by local embassies and the number reported by the government. For example, the Nepali embassy reported 191 Nepali worker deaths in 2010, and the Indian embassy reported 98 Indian migrant deaths, including 45 deaths of young, low-income workers due to cardiac arrest, thus far in 2012. An Indian embassy spokesperson told local media that heat stroke likely contributed to this unusual rate of heart failure.

Yet in a letter to Human Rights Watch, Labor Ministry officials stated that, “Over the last three years, there have been no more than six cases of worker deaths. The causes are falls.” The lack of any requirement for companies to regularly publish data on worker deaths and injuries contributes to this lack of transparency and information, Human Rights Watch said.

“How can Qatar confidently green-light such massive construction projects when they don’t even know with any confidence the rate of worker deaths and injuries in the country?” Whitson said. “A very basic starting point is for the government to investigate and publish exact and detailed data on where, how, and how many workers have died or suffered injuries in the country.”

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