Report calls for an overhaul of the ‘sponsorship’ system

Qatar’s feverish preparations for hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022 has triggered systematic abuse of migrant workers, mostly from South and South-east Asia, who are arriving in the wealthy Emirate in droves.

The rights group Amnesty International has penciled the spotlight on what it called was the “routine abuse of migrant workers — in some cases amounting to forced labour.”

The hard-hitting report titled, The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup, has unraveled in considerable detail, the various dimensions and mechanisms that are used for systematically abusing migrants, who are arriving at the rate of 20 workers per hour, in the hope of benefiting from an unprecedented construction boom in the tiny Gulf Emirate.

"Construction companies and the Qatari authorities alike are failing migrant workers. Employers in Qatar have displayed an appalling disregard for the basic human rights of migrant workers. Many are taking advantage of a permissive environment and lax enforcement of labour protections to exploit construction workers," said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty international.

The report, compiled after extensive interviews with expat workers, as well as meetings with company and government officials, points to the existence of “complex contractual chains” that often display inhuman disregard of workers’ rights. The study quotes one manager as saying that his company was employing “animals"—a deeply pejorative reference to blue collar workers that were hired by the firm.

The findings of the report reveal that migrant construction workers often work for small and medium sized enterprises, which are sub-contracted to major companies, which, in some cases fail to prevent abuse. Global giants including Qatar Petroleum, Hyundai E&C and OHL Construction are on top of the construction pyramid.

A variety of mechanisms are deployed to deprive migrant workers their basic human rights, including non-payment of wages, harsh and dangerous working conditions, and “shocking standards” of accommodation. Amnesty’s researchers encountered dozens of construction workers whose employers prevented them from leaving the country for many months – leaving them helplessly trapped in Qatar.

The report points to appalling safety standards , by quoting a representative of Doha’s main hospital, who said earlier this year that more than 1,000 people, falling from heights, while at work, had been admitted to the trauma unit of the facility in 2012. Ten per cent of these were disabled, and the resulting mortality rate was "significant".

Companies frequently withheld passports, which were then used as instruments of blackmail. Amnesty’s researchers witnessed 11 men signing papers in front of government officials, falsely confirming that they had received their wages, in order to get back their passports so that they could leave Qatar.

The rights group has consequently called for an overhaul of the ‘sponsorship’ system, which is a root cause of the inability of migrant workers to leave the country or change jobs without their employers’ consent.

The report reveals instances of forced labour, resulting from threats of deportation or loss of income if employees, even those were not being paid, did not show up to work.

Many workers have suffered extreme psychological distress, resulting from their inability to clear their debts, incurred ahead of their arrival in Qatar, and their inability to support their families back home. The report quotes one Nepalese worker, who has not been paid for seven months, and not allowed to leave either, for three months, as saying: "Please tell me - is there any way to get out of here? ... We are going totally mad."

Amnesty’s findings also shed light on the squalid, overcrowded accommodation with no air conditioning that migrant workers have to endure in a country that is known for its extreme summer temperatures. Many migrants are exposed to overflowing sewage or uncovered septic tanks, and several labour camps lacked power. "Unless critical, far-reaching steps are taken immediately, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who will be recruited in the coming years to deliver Qatar’s vision face a high risk of being abused," observed Mr. Shetty.

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