April 13, 2016 Stephen Russell

British Companies accused of human rights abuse in Qatar

British companies and their Qatar-based subsidiaries are accused of confiscating passports, switching contracts, providing overcrowded accommodation and using kafala to trap workers in abusive conditions.

That’s the finding of a new investigation by the Guardian‘s Pete Pattison, who’s been one of the most active journalists in exposing the terrible conditions faced by workers in Qatar in advance of the 2022 World Cup.

The report, which spoke to workers from BK Gulf, co-owned by Balfour Beatty, and Gulf Contracting Company (GCC), co-owned by Interserve, shows that conditions under the auspices of British companies are little or no better than those faced by the rest of the construction workforce.

Balfour Beatty is one of the UK’s most famous construction companies, having been involved in the Docklands Light Railway, the Channel Tunnel,  the Cardiff Bay Barrage and the current Crossrail project.  Interserve is highly visible in the UK, running many contracted-out public services.

Neither firm can work independently in Qatar, as local laws say companies must work in partnership with a local company that owns 51% of the business. This does not reduce their responsibility to take effective steps to ensure that no abuse of human rights is found in their sub-contracting arrangements.

Conditions of debt bondage – where workers have paid so much in fees to secure work and then paid so little that they have no choice but to keep working no matter what conditions they face – were reported, as well as exploitation of kafala (the sponsorship law which gives Employers power over their workers’ movements) to keep workers from leaving the country. Together, the two abuses throw up the severe risk that workers are suffering forced labour, for which Qatar has been referred to the International Labour Organisation and given a year to eradicate.

Both companies responded that they were inspecting their supply chains to ensure that standards were upheld, but given the ease with which The Guardian’s team uncovered transgressions it seems that British companies are little better than the Qatari authorities when it comes to making sure that workers are properly protected: not surprising when the workers themselves are only asked for their opinion when the journalists are in town.

UK companies have a responsibility under the OECD Guidance for Multinational Enterprises to respect the right of workers to form or join a trade union and to bargain collectively. Trade union membership for migrant workers is outlawed by Qatari law, but there’s nothing to stop companies consulting workers and allowing them a collective voice. It’s high time British companies started setting the standards needed to deliver change.

The Guardian has also released this video showing migrant workers being excluded from parts of Doha and turned away from Qatari “family areas” – a reminder than the mistreatment of workers is not just about how they might die, but how they live.