Qatar’s developmental model is based on enslaved labour

Sharan Burrow, Secretary-General of the International Trade Union Conference.  

The report, ‘The Case Against Qatar,’ produced by Sharan Burrow, Secretary-General of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and her colleagues, is an indictment of the Qatar government’s treatment of the workers building infrastructure for the 2022 Football World Cup to be held there. Ms. Burrow spoke to Basharat Peer.

Abuse of migrant workers, their abysmal working on infrastructure projects in the Gulf and other Middle Eastern states are well documented. How different is the case of migrant workers in Qatar from other Arab states?

There are around 1.4 million workers living in conditions that amount to modern day slavery in Qatar. It is one of the richest countries in the world but Qatar has chosen a developmental model that is based on enslaved labour. What Qatar chose is a system where a worker is owned by his employer. When your employer forces you to live in squalor, makes you work longest hours in extreme heat, doesn’t allow you to change jobs, doesn’t pay your wages on time, abuses you physically and psychologically, you have no way out, you can’t leave. You are trapped.

What about the process by which the workers are hired?

If you are an Indian worker in Qatar, to get there you mostly go through employment agencies. They charge about $ 2,000 to a worker a job. A poor Indian worker can’t afford that kind of money and often has to borrow the money. And the workers reach Qatar without any guarantees that their contracts will be honoured. I have talked to hundreds of workers who were offered a particular job and arrived in Qatar to find themselves in jobs that are much harsher and paid much less. On my most recent trip to Qatar, I met many workers who were trafficked from Nepal, they arrived in Qatar without any of the promised jobs available and the burden of a loan. They are forced to take anything they get, in the harshest conditions.

Your report, “The Case Against Qatar” has become the primary source on the number of worker deaths in Qatar and has been quoted in scores of influential media reports in the context of the infrastructure being built for the Football World Cup. The numbers you quoted are being debated and questioned as inaccurate.

The sources for the numbers of deaths we quoted were the Indian and Nepali embassies. According to their numbers, around 400 workers from India and Nepal die in Qatar every year. It is shocking when you consider that these are numbers only from two countries. On the basis of these numbers we extrapolated that around 4,000 workers will die in Qatar before the first ball is kicked in the Football World Cup in 2022. The ITUC September 2013 estimate of 4,000 deaths by the time the World Cup starts, does not include fatalities from the 40 per cent of workers from other countries of origin. It is based on a conservative estimate of 400 fatalities per year over nine years (2014-2022 inclusive) with a conservative estimate of an overall average workforce increase of 10 per cent over the period with a concomitant increase in fatalities.

India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has contested your numbers. The counter-argument on the number of worker deaths is that those numbers include all deaths of Indian and Nepali citizens living in Qatar, not just workers. Ms. Swaraj tweeted that only 109 Indian workers have been killed in on-site deaths in Qatar since 2007.

When the authorities in Qatar or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association try to create statistics, they only report the incidents that occur in football stadiums that are being built. They are building a whole city; they can’t limit the work-related deaths only to the stadiums. What the Indian Foreign Minister is denying is the deaths that occur after injuries sustained on site, deaths that occur because of respiratory diseases contracted in relation to work, and deaths caused in other ways — whether a heat stroke or a heart attack in living quarters —which occur because they are working there. The number of work-related deaths is much higher than the number of on-site deaths reported. Fatalities of workers who are passing away in the appalling labour camps, in worksite accidents, on their way to and from the construction sites or other workplaces in company-organised transportation, are all work-related.

You don’t agree with the critiques that the worker deaths in Qatar are exaggerated.

Qatar’s public relations campaign is trying to convince the world that these deaths are not related to work but Qatar refuses to conduct post-mortems, it refuses to collect and make available the statistics on incidence of mortality and morbidity and worst of all it refuses to take responsibility and change its system of modern slavery.

As we know from the recent experiences of journalists at the BBC, German national broadcaster WDR/ARD and previous cases of detention and harassment of journalists, any journalist who tries to uncover information which is being suppressed by Qatar faces arrest, detention, threats, confiscation of equipment and elimination of data, including their own personal data, on any electronic devices that the journalist has with them in Qatar.

How has FIFA responded to the critiques from the rights groups and the press?

FIFA has the power to make the world cup conditional to rights of workers. But it did nothing. FIFA is culpable in propping up modern day slavery. Both Qatar and FIFA must reform.

Qatar did announce some changes to the Kafala system, the non-transferable visa regime, which binds a migrant worker to an employer, who confiscates his or her passport on arrival and leaves the worker at his mercy. Were they enough? Were the changes implemented?

Under the proposed changes, the Qatar government would take the exit visa from the employer and deposit it with their Interior Ministry. It still keeps the worker trapped. They didn’t even implement that.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 6:47:48 PM |

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