In December 2010, hours after FIFA declared that the 2022 World Cup would be held in Qatar, the head of its bid committee, Hassan Al Thawadi, called the decision “a bold gamble” but one that involved “no risk.” I suspect that – similar to human rights researchers like me - construction industry professionals agreed with Al Thawadi’s first assertion, but not his second.

The Gulf states’ intransigence on implementing and enforcing labor reforms means that the migrant workers on whom their economies depend are acutely vulnerable to trafficking and forced labor. Qatar has been the subject of more criticism than other Gulf states, largely on account of the spotlight on hosts of major sporting tournaments, and its response has been particularly disappointing. Qatar has refused to reform its kafala system of sponsorship-based employment and won’t even part with an exit visa requirement that serves no obvious purpose other than to exert maximum control over workers trying to leave abusive workplaces.

The risks for construction firms are, therefore, significant, and no company will be more aware of this than the French construction giant Vinci.

In March 2015, a French nongovernmental organization, Sherpa, filed a complaint against Vinci with a French prosecutor alleging that workers on Vinci projects in Qatar have been subjected to forced labor and servitude. Vinci filed lawsuits for defamation, saying that Sherpa’s allegations “constitute a serious attack on our image.” Vinci is seeking substantial financial damages from three Sherpa employees as well as from the organization itself. The defamation lawsuits will be heard in a court in Paris on June 23.

Human Rights Watch cannot comment on Sherpa’s complaint because we have never visited a Vinci site in Qatar nor spoken to workers in its labor supply chain, although we have spoken to both Vinci and Sherpa. But what is clear is that this case highlights the serious challenges facing the construction sector in the Gulf. How can companies raise standards without upsetting their clients, who more often than not are the very governments that are dragging their heels on labor reform, and how can firms guarantee that their subcontractors won’t abuse their employees?

In December 2015, Human Rights Watch issued its “Guide to Doing Ethical Business in the Gulf.” These guidelines are based on over a decade of our research in this area. They cover issues such as recruitment fees, timely payment of wages, passport confiscation, accommodation, and health and safety, and they recommend independent third-party monitoring to ensure the effective implementation that is key to success.

Industry codes of conduct can’t replace the state-led labor reform that is so badly needed in the Gulf. But they can provide companies with region- and sector-specific advice. The construction industry doesn’t need to wait for new laws and regulations, which have been slow in coming and are rarely enforced in the Gulf. Elsewhere, many corporations in industries from garment manufacturing to electronics have agreed upon standards, such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, that improve the treatment of their workers and enable the corporations to respect human rights.  

To Vinci’s credit, it has been one of the construction companies that has embraced the need for more active regulation of its labor supply chains other companies should do the same. Quasi-governmental developers like the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) in the United Arab Emirates and the Qatar Foundation and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy in Qatar have also agreed to codes of self-regulation that bind their contractors to standards that in some cases involve third-party monitoring.

We have criticized TDIC’s enforcement efforts, though. And a recent Amnesty International report revealed that a group of workers building football stadiums in Qatar had been subject to serious abuses despite the Supreme Committee’s worker welfare code. These failures shouldn’t lead anyone to the conclusion that industry codes are a waste of time. Rather they point to the fact that it is difficult for individual projects to fully insulate themselves from the abuses that all too often characterize large swathes of the industry, particularly at the lower end of labor supply chains. The success of worker welfare codes hinges on the extent to which companies can enforce them.

Therein lies the challenge for Vinci and others. The abuse of migrant workers in the Gulf is a problem that can be fixed, and the construction industry can play an important role in ensuring that workers’ rights are protected in the absence of proper government regulation. Construction companies have every right to defend their reputation, but it’s difficult to see how Vinci’s reputation will be enhanced if the result is  financially ruining Sherpa or the people whose work has made it such a creditable and respected organization. Construction firms can best protect themselves by ensuring that their codes of conduct effectively protect workers’ rights. Without the criticism of independent organizations and the scrutiny of the media, there would be no pressure for much-needed reforms.