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Friday, February 26, 2021

No work-related deaths on Qatar’s World Cup sites, organizers say

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Construction workers queue at Khalifa Stadium
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

No work-related fatalities have been recorded on Qatar’s World Cup construction sites, even as stadium construction has intensified over the last year, according to local tournament organizers.

However, two Indian nationals in their 50s employed on World Cup projects have died in incidents unrelated to their work.

And six individuals suffered serious injuries, ranging from a fractured ankle to the amputation of one worker’s fingertip after it became caught between two steel beams, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SCDL) said in its latest worker welfare report.

Such disclosures are rare in Qatar, where official reports of injuries and deaths involving blue-collar expats are not usually publicly released.

Worker welfare progress report.
Worker welfare progress report.

According to the 46-page Workers’ Welfare Progress Report (PDF), which came out today, a 52-year-old painter working on the Khalifa International Stadium site went into cardiac arrest during lunch at one of the site’s dining halls and died in the hospital in October.

And last month, a 55-year-old truck driver suffered a heart attack in his accommodation and later passed away.

While human rights organizations have previously highlighted what they believe to be an unnaturally high number of young men dying from heart attacks after working in Qatar’s intense summer heat, both deaths occurred during the country’s cooler months not long after the men were assigned to World Cup-related projects, officials said.

Changes afoot

The latest welfare report is based on a series of self-audits by contractors working on World Cup sites and investigations by SCDL staff into whether construction firms are complying with the organization’s labor standards.

Introduced in 2014, the provisions set by the SCDL go beyond what’s required by Qatar’s laws and cover recruitment policies, payment terms, overtime provisions and accommodation standards.

Human rights advocates have welcomed these measures, but also point out that the majority of Qatar’s blue-collar expats work on projects unrelated to the 2022 World Cup and continue to be vulnerable to abuse at the hands of their sponsors.

However, SCDL officials said some of their initiatives have begun inspiring others in the construction industry to make changes.

“You see improvement happening … other contractors are applying our standards,” SCDL secretary-general Hassan Al Thawadi told Doha News.

For example, Nakheel Landscapes – which is developing temporary training pitches at Al Rayyan Stadium – recently moved its 140 World Cup workers out of accommodation that SCDL inspectors said has “significant challenges.”

But the company also relocated more than 1,000 other employees not working on the tournament to the newly constructed Labor City, and plans to move the majority of its 4,000-odd staff this spring.

Labor City
Labor City

In another instance, HBK Contracting Co. – which was hired to do preliminary work on the Al Wakrah Stadium site – rented 18 villas in a compound close to the project and added features and services such as a computer room, catered meals and a full-time doctor to meet SCDL standards, according to the report.

That led other companies that rented villas in the compound but were not working on World Cup projects to undertake similar upgrades.

Recruitment fees

While the SCDL said it has made progress in improving worker housing, it conceded that it’s aware of “serious issues” related to the recruitment of workers coming to Qatar, namely the “very common” practice of expats paying fees to agents in their home country.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges we face,” Al Thawadi said.

Wakrah Stadium site
Wakrah Stadium site

These fees are particularly problematic, rights groups have said, because expats are typically forced to take out loans – often at exorbitant interest rates – before moving here.

SCDL’s policies stipulate that expats should not pay fees to come to Qatar. Practically, however, that can be difficult to enforce.

Many of the blue-collar workers currently constructing Qatar’s new football stadiums were not recruited for the World Cup. Instead, they arrived several years ago to work on other projects and were reassigned after their employer was awarded work by the SCDL, officials say.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

But as the need for additional workers increases in the coming years, SCDL officials said they plan to travel to labor-sending countries and meet with recruiting agents to explain their requirements. This includes charging the construction companies in Qatar, rather than migrants, recruitment fees.

Additionally, SCDL officials said they are working with NGOs such as Humanity United to explore technological solutions that would cut out recruitment agents altogether.

For example, if a company in Qatar needed to hire more staff, it could post its positions online and registered residents of countries such as Nepal would receive a WhatsApp message that alerts them of the job opportunity.

Manpower agencies

Another area the SCDL said it wants to address is improving oversight of the use of subcontractors and labor supply companies to ensure all firms are complying with the organization’s standards.

Al Thawadi said the SCDL has already ordered one subcontractor to be removed from a team of companies that won a World Cup contract because the firm failed to correctly disclose the actual employer of the workers it deployed on another project, among other transgressions.

“They were taken off the project they were already awarded and given a clear message: ‘If you don’t improve, you will be taken of all our projects,’” Al Thawadi said, declining to name the firm.

While the use of labor supply firms is common in the construction industry, workers employed by manpower agencies are particularly vulnerable, said Amnesty International researcher Mustafa Qadri.

These smaller companies are more likely to be on site for shorter periods, have informal employment arrangements with workers and be in a financially precarious situation, which could cause them to cut corners if they start running out of work, Qadri told Doha News.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Qadri said he would welcome any concrete efforts by the SCDL to identify the manpower companies sending their employees to World Cup sites, determine how much they are being paid and inspect their living conditions.

“Businesses (in Qatar) don’t have the full picture of who is working on their sites,” he said.

Qadri said he still has concerns that laborers on World Cup construction sites will be abused. He said he’d like to see more proactive investigations conducted into the living and working conditions of blue-collar migrants that go beyond checking for compliance to SCDL standards.

To this end, Qadri said he welcomed news that the SCDL plans to hire an external monitor to conduct ad-hoc audits of World Cup contractors and subcontractors.

“There would appear to be a genuine effort on the part of the SCDL to tackle this very challenging issue of abuse of migrant workers on World Cup sites,” he said, adding, “It shows there is potential for the World Cup to be a positive move for human rights in Qatar.”

Here’s the full report:

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