Gulf state urged to take action after official figures show migrant workers dying at rate of more than one a day
By Owen Gibson
Migrant workers leave a construction site in Doha, Qatar, where 1.4 million labourers are helping prepare for the 2022 World Cup. Photograph: EPA
Migrant workers are still dying in Qatar at a rate of more than one a day, intensifying pressure on the Gulf state to improve conditions for the 1.4 million labourers helping it prepare for 2022 World Cup.
On the day that the Qatari authorities confirmed they had received a pivotal independent report into workersâ€™ rights triggered by Guardian revelations of workplace abuses in the country, they on Thursday faced mounting calls to rapidly reform labour laws.
According to official figures, a total of 53 Nepalese workers died between January 2014 and mid-April this year, taking the toll on that country since January 2012 to more than 430. New figures from the Indian embassy show that 89 migrants died in the first four months of the year, bringing the total of Indian deaths to 567 since January 2012.
Analysis of previous death figures has shown that a high proportion were involved in workplace accidents or suffered sudden heart failure, though some may have died of natural causes and will not have been on building sites.
Qatari officials have stepped up inspections of working conditions and recently gave strong indications that they are prepared to reform labour laws, but it remains unclear whether they will go as far as scrapping an exit-visa system which prevents workers leaving Qatar without the permission of their employer. There are many examples of migrant workers being effectively held to ransom because their employer refuses to allow them to leave, with French footballer Zahir Belounis being a high-profile example.
The exit-visa system has become an important issue as rights bodies await the publication of an independent report by law firm DLA Piper that was commissioned in the wake of a global outcry prompted by a series of reports in the Guardian in September 2013.
The Qatari government confirmed they had received the â€œcomprehensiveâ€ DLA Piper report into the health and safety migrant workers and its national labour laws. It said it was studying the conclusions and proposals for action, promising to publish it in full at a later date together with its response.
At a conference in Doha on Thursday attended by senior Qatari government representatives, Amnesty Internationalâ€™s head of global issues, Audrey Gaughran, told them the exit-visa system was a â€œblatant human rights violationâ€.
Human rights organisations believe Qatar has reached a crunch point at which it must make a decisive move to demonstrate its commitment to reform by scrapping exit visas.
â€œIt would be evidence of good intentions and good faith. Itâ€™s very much the low-hanging fruit in this debate. [The system] can be abolished without any impact on the profitability of commercial enterprises,â€ said Nicholas McGeehan, the Human Rights Watch researcher for Bahrain, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates.
â€œWe recognise that labour reform will be incremental. We see it as in Qatarâ€™s best interests to get rid of this system. It would demonstrate to the business community that labour reform and the ability to run commercial enterprises are not mutually exclusive. We hope someone invests some political capital in this and abolishes it.â€
The minister of labour and social affairs, Abdullah Saleh Mubarak Al Khulaifi, told the Peninsula newspaper his ministry was making â€œevery effortâ€ to tackle all laws that relate to workersâ€™ issues. He reportedly announced a new system whereby workers would have to be paid by bank transfers, which can be monitored, instead of by cash, which is open to abuse.
â€œOur [Islamic] religion has ordered us to treat workers in a humane way, and not to task them with unbearable jobs â€¦ most importantly, to pay them,â€ Khulaifi said. â€œWe hope that the wage protection system will achieve its aims.â€
James Lynch, Amnestyâ€™s lead researcher for the Middle East, said after speaking at Thursdayâ€™s conference that the Qataris were engaging with the complex issue but Amnesty now wanted to see concrete signs of progress.
â€œIt is encouraging that the government turned out in force and the officials with relevant authority engaged in the debate,â€ said Lynch.
â€œBut we donâ€™t have any new information about what the plans are. There was some acknowledgement that there were issues to be addressed, but we didnâ€™t hear any positions particularly shifting.â€
Workers from Nepal make up around a sixth of the 1.4 million migrant workers in Qatar fuelling a Â£123bn investment in infrastructure over the next four years, while just over a fifth come from India.
The oil and gas-rich Gulf state is embarking on an unprecedented â€œnation-building programmeâ€ of which the 2022 World Cup is an integral part. The International Trade Union Confederation has warned that 4,000 migrant workers could die before a ball is kicked if nothing is done to reform labour laws.
Pressure for better working conditions has increased since a Guardian investigation last year discovered that Nepali workers alone died at a rate of almost one a day last summer. The new figures from the Nepalese Foreign Employment Promotion Board are likely to be a conservative estimate, because they only record those families that approach it for compensation on behalf of the deceased.
Qatar has its UN universal periodic review session on 7 May â€“ a process that takes place every four years in which a countryâ€™s human rights record is reviewed by other states â€“ and is expected to want to unveil some progress towards labour law reform before then.
Visiting MEPs and other inspectors have also been told to expect significant changes to the labour law, which could include a commitment to extend a new workersâ€™ charter applying to World Cup-related projects to all work commissioned by the government.
Jim Murphy, the shadow secretary for international development, said: â€œThe release of the DLA Piper report will be a step in the right direction, but the real test is the reform that comes with it. Fifa must insist on substantial change that dramatically improves the lot of migrant workers currently suffering in Qatar.â€