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Migrant Workers Are Still Being Abused In Qatar

The country with the world's highest per capita GDP has indefinitely delayed implementation of reforms that would insure migrant workers constructing its 2022 World Cup facilities would receive their paychecks on time and regularly.

by Pierre-Louis Caron
Aug 18 2015, 8:15pm

Foreign construction workers leave a construction site in Doha, Qatar, 19 November 2013. (Stringer/EPA)

Qatar has indefinitely delayed launching a new labor reform that would ensure migrant workers are paid regularly and on time.

Under the proposed new Wage Protection System (WPS), companies employing foreign laborers would be forced to pay workers monthly or fortnightly through direct bank transfers — a measure that will make it easier to track payments.

The proposed reform would be a first in the peninsular Gulf state, which is often criticized for its dismal labor record.

According to NGO Amnesty International, the WPS, when implemented, would affect nearly 1.5 million migrant laborers in Qatar — many of them working on 2022 World Cup-related projects.

Initially scheduled for launch on August 18, the WPS has been postponed to November 2, to allow companies that are "not ready" to implement the new conditions to better prepare for the reform.

But official sources in Qatar told VICE News that while the launch had indeed been delayed, no official date had yet been released.

"Qatar is trying to buy some time," said Mustafa Qadri, a Gulf migrant rights researcher at Amnesty International. Speaking to VICE News Tuesday, Qadri said that the reform was "shrouded in mystery," despite the wealthy nation "clearly having the means to implement it."

Related: The Persian Gulf's 'Blade Runner' Obsession Is Killing Migrant Workers

The WPS was initially adopted in February, when Qatar's government pledged to introduce a major labor reform that would oblige companies to pay workers regularly, through bank transfers. Workers on an annual contract would be paid every month, while others would be compensated fortnightly.

Employers who do not comply with the WPS will face fines of up to 6,000 Qatari riyals ($1,600) and up to a month in jail.

"The system looks great on paper, but it's not enough," said Qadri. "Very few details of the WPS have emerged," the researcher explained. "We don't know if the protection will extend to women, nor how the government intends to enforce the new rules."

While the WPS does constitute "progress," Qadri expressed some doubt as to the application of the reform. He noted that, despite a government ban on passport confiscation, the practice remained "widespread" among Qatari employers.

A number of NGOs — among them Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — have spent years investigating the working and living conditions of migrant workers and laborers in Qatar.

"Many of them come from India and Nepal," said Qadri, who has made several visits to the Gulf state in recent months. The Amnesty International researcher described the "very difficult" living conditions endured by workers, who are mostly housed in barracks on the outskirts of towns.

"They often sleep ten to a room, the bathrooms and kitchens are tiny and very dirty," said Qadri.

After being awarded the 2022 FIFA world cup in 2010, Qatar started work on its stadiums and related infrastructure, including roads, hotels and accommodations for teams, sponsors and supporters. The country plans to build at least eight stadiums for the 2022 tournament.

Related: How Soccer Despot Sepp Blatter Finally Fell to Earth

In a May 2015 briefing titled "Promising Little, Delivering Less," Qadri and his Amnesty colleagues pointed out that, a year after Qatar promised to introduce labor reforms to protect migrant workers' rights, "hopes of true progress are fading fast."

In May, the Washington Post reported that 1,200 laborers had died on World Cup sites, a figure vehemently denied by Qatar's authorities, who accused the daily of "enormous damage… to Qatar's image and reputation." The WP later revised its blog post to clarify that the figure "involved all migrant deaths in Qatar" — not just those on World Cup sites.

"What we do know with certainty is that 414 foreign workers died in Qatar in 2014," said Qadri, adding that the figure includes death from "all causes."

Qadri referred to Qatar's "kefala" system — a form of "sponsorship" that regulates the distribution of work visas in the country. In order to work in Qatar, migrant workers hoping to send money home to their families must first be sponsored by a Qatari citizen, who then recommends the worker to an employer.

"Laborers literally cannot leave the country unless they are accompanied by their sponsor," explained Qadri. Workers, he added, "are not allowed to find a new employer unless authorized by their sponsor and can be deported without being paid at the behest of their sponsor."

In May, Amnesty said FIFA had "a duty to send a strong public message that it will not tolerate human rights abuses on construction projects related to the World Cup."

Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter : @pierrelouis_c

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