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Qatar: labour reforms are 'unfinished business' and worker compensation fund still needed

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With one month until kick-off, new report says ‘job of protecting migrant workers from exploitation is only half done’

Numerous failings identified, while neither FIFA nor Qatar have made progress on vital compensation fund

‘The job of protecting migrant workers from exploitation is only half done’ - Steve Cockburn

‘We’ve long thought the FA should have had the courage to speak out far more clearly’ - Sacha Deshmukh

The Qatari authorities must re-commit to fully delivering on promised labour reforms now and beyond the World Cup, Amnesty International said today, as it published its final pre-tournament briefing on migrant workers showing that abuses remain rife across the country. 

The 45-page report - Unfinished Business: what Qatar must do to fulfil promises on migrant workers’ rights - insists that progress on labour reforms “must not grind to a halt once the World Cup roadshow leaves Doha”, and with just a month until kick-off Amnesty has again reiterated its call on FIFA and Qatar to establish a compensation fund for abused migrant workers. 

Qatar’s overhaul of its labour system since 2017 has led to some noticeable improvements for the country’s two million migrant workers - hundreds of thousands of whom have been engaged in projects essential to the World Cup. However, a lack of effective implementation and enforcement has undermined their impact. Thousands of workers across all projects are still facing issues such as delayed or unpaid wages, denial of rest days, unsafe working conditions, barriers to changing jobs, and limited access to justice, while the deaths of thousands of workers remain uninvestigated.

Last month, a global poll commissioned by Amnesty revealed overwhelming support among both the general public and football fans for the compensation of migrant workers who suffered during preparations for the World Cup. The findings back the #PayUpFIFA campaign launched by a coalition of human rights organisations - including Amnesty - fans groups and trade unions in May, calling on FIFA and the Qatari authorities to establish a comprehensive remediation programme to compensate workers and prevent future abuses.  

Since 2017, Qatar has introduced several labour reforms, including a law regulating working conditions for live-in domestic workers, labour tribunals to facilitate access to justice, a fund to support payment of unpaid wages, and a minimum wage. Qatar has also ratified two key international human rights treaties, albeit without recognising the right of migrant workers to join a trade union. Qatar’s World Cup organising body, the Supreme Committee, has also introduced enhanced labour standards for workers, but only on official tournament sites such as stadia, meaning that only a small proportion of workers on projects essential to the World Cup are included amounting to just 2% of Qatar’s workforce.

While recognising the importance of these reforms, Amnesty’s report provides an action plan to address ongoing failings across ten key areas. Among other things, Amnesty is urging the Qatari authorities to enforce and strengthen labour protections, empower workers, make work genuinely pay, and guarantee access to justice and remedy.

Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Head of Economic and Social Justice, said: 

“Although Qatar has made important strides on labour rights over the past five years, it’s abundantly clear that there is a great distance still to go. 

“Thousands of workers remain stuck in the familiar cycle of exploitation and abuse thanks to legal loopholes and inadequate enforcement.

“With the World Cup looming, the job of protecting migrant workers from exploitation is only half done, while that of compensating those who have suffered abuses has barely started. 

“Progress must not grind to a halt once the World Cup roadshow leaves Doha.

“Despite huge and growing support in favour of compensating migrant workers among fans, football associations, and sponsors, Qatar and FIFA are still not budging. 

“With only a month to go, time is fast running out for them to do the right thing. 

“Turning a blind eye to the abuses suffered by thousands of migrant workers over the years flies in the face of their respective international obligations and responsibilities. They must come together to ensure that those who suffered so much to make this tournament possible are not left behind.”

Labour abuses still occurring ‘on significant scale’

Migrant workers on both World Cup and non-World Cup related projects continue to face abuses on a significant scale in Qatar. Many workers, particularly in the domestic and security sectors, continue to be subjected to conditions that amount to forced labour, with domestic workers still typically working between 14 and 18 hours a day without a weekly day off. Security guards are often also repeatedly denied their rest days and forced to work under a threat of penalties such as having their salaries arbitrarily deducted or sometimes their passports confiscated, despite such practices being in violation of Qatari law.

Joshua*, a private security worker from Kenya who recently left Qatar before the end of his contract due to the working conditions, told Amnesty:

“It was unbearable to stay on in the company I was in due to the treatment and overload of work. In four months, you get just two days off. There’s late salaries and too many fines deducted unnecessarily … The company has withheld my visa such that I can't go back [to Qatar] if I get a job with another company.”

Thousands of deaths remain uninvestigated

The deaths of thousands of migrant workers over the past decade and beyond - on World Cup-related projects or otherwise - remain unexplained. At a minimum, hundreds of these fatalities were likely a consequence of working in Qatar’s extreme heat. New heat legislation is an improvement but must be strengthened to meet international standards and adequately protect outdoor workers. Despite clear evidence that heat stress poses a huge risk to health, the Qatari authorities have done little to investigate, certify or remedy migrant workers’ deaths, contrary to international best practice.

It is not just the devastating emotional impact on victims’ families but also the loss of a family’s main breadwinner coupled with the lack of financial compensation that leaves many in even deeper poverty. Bhumisara*, whose husband’s death in Qatar remains unexplained, told Amnesty:

“Now everything is shattered … Life itself has become like a broken mirror … I have cried many times in emotion. Being alone is very difficult … I feel like I’m burning in oil.”

Union bans and extortionate recruitment fees

Migrant workers remain unable to form or join trade unions in Qatar, contrary to their fundamental right under international law to do so. Instead, “joint committees” formed and led by employers, cover only 2% of the workforce. The committees provide workers with some representation but lack mechanisms for collective bargaining and fail to provide workers with crucial legal protections.

The payment by prospective migrant workers of extortionate recruitment fees to secure jobs in Qatar remains rampant. Fees of between US$1,000 and US$3,000 mean many workers need months or even years to repay the debt. While workers on some projects under the remit of the World Cup organisers are able to claim some reimbursement of these fees, this is impossible for the vast majority of workers in the country.

Migrant workers still vulnerable to arrest or deportation

Crucial changes to the notorious kafala system - which made workers entirely dependent on their employer - mean the vast majority of migrant workers in Qatar are now legally able to leave the country and change jobs without permission. However, migrant workers still risk being arrested or deported if their employers cancel their visas, refuse to renew their residence permit or report them as having “absconded”. Despite the Qatari authorities saying they have approved more than 300,000 job transfer applications since October 2020, Amnesty has documented several recent cases in which unscrupulous employers used their powers to cancel visas, renew residence permits and report workers for “absconding” to punish those who complained about working conditions or simply wanted to change jobs. In one case, Geoffrey*, a delivery driver who complained to the Ministry of Labour about withheld wages and a lack of food and sanitary accommodation, was detained by police on “runaway” charges and held for three weeks. 

FA should speak out clearly on human rights

Amnesty has repeatedly expressed concern that the English FA has been reluctant to make public statements concerning human rights issues in the lead-up to Qatar2022. Last month, FA Chief Executive Mark Bullingham reiterated earlier FA remarks about working jointly on human rights issues as part of the UEFA Working Group on Human Rights, saying the working group is “pushing FIFA for an update on the concept of a Migrant Workers’ Centre in Qatar, to provide advice and help for migrant workers”. 

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s Chief Executive, said:

“We’ve long thought the FA should have spoken out far more clearly and honestly about the serious human rights abuses that threaten to completely overshadow this World Cup.

“There have been thousands of unexplained deaths of migrant workers in Qatar during the last decade, labour reforms while welcome are still extremely patchy, and LGBTI rights are non-existent and threaten to remain so after the World Cup has come and gone from Qatar.

“With kick-off now almost upon us, the FA has a responsibility to say loudly and clearly that Qatar’s labour reforms urgently need reinforcing, that a FIFA-backed worker compensation fund needs to become a reality, and that Qatar must go beyond merely saying LGTBI fans are ‘welcome’ and instead abolish the country’s shocking anti-LGBTI laws.”

*Real names not used.

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