Prosecutors in France have agreed to open a preliminary investigation into claims that construction company Vinci has been mistreating laborers in Qatar.
The move comes after Paris-based human rights organization Sherpa filed a legal complaint in France alleging that workers on Vinci-related projects here were subjected to “forced labor.”
France-based Vinci’s Construction Grands Projects division owns 49 percent of QDVC, one of Qatar’s most prominent developers. The other 51 percent is owned by the Qatari Diar, the real estate arm of the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
Some laborers told the group that their employer had confiscated their passports – which is illegal under Qatari law – and threatened them if they complained about their living and working conditions, or asked to change employers.
Vinci told Doha News last month that the housing conditions workers complained about had been temporary, and that the company built a new labor camp that opened in Al Khor in January.
A spokesperson added that the workers’ previous accommodations did not have individual safes to protect documents. Thus, passports were collectively kept in a master safe, with the signed permission of each employee.
“At any moment, at any time, if they wanted to get their passport they could go to the camp manager and get their passport,” the spokesperson said. “We were not happy with that system, but there was a (shortage of) worker’s housing in Qatar.”
Though prosecutors have agreed to investigate Sherpa’s claims, the inquiry will likely take several months, the Guardian reports.
And speaking to Doha News last month, Sherpa said that an investigation does not necessarily guarantee that charges would be filed or that Vinci would be found guilty.
For its part, Vinci has filed a defamation lawsuit against Sherpa and some of its employees.
If the company is successful, the human rights group said it could be hit with €405,000 in legal fines, compensatory damages and publications of the decision. Two of its members, Laetitia Liebert and Marie-Laure Guislain, would also have to pay €203,000 in penalties.
Despite the lawsuit, Sherpa said in a statement on its website:
“We are delighted that Vinci’s complaint gives us another opportunity to open up public debate on the respect of workers’ fundamental rights on its construction sites in Qatar.
Our actions have already produced results because Vinci’s spokesmen have been obliged to answer for their practices and above all have reported improvements to working conditions on their construction sites in Qatar since the enquiry and in the future. We hope that these declarations will be followed up with concrete and tangible improvements in the living and working conditions in place there.”