5 years later…

Today, the TUC releases an eve-of-the-World-Cup report, detailing the experiences of workers who spoke to our researcher earlier this month.

The link to the report is below, but the foreword was written with the Playfair Qatar team, and is an important follow up to our last post 5 years ago.


In 2014, the TUC campaigned to draw attention to the appalling situation faced by migrant workers in Qatar tasked with building the infrastructure necessary to host the 2022 World Cup. Working with football fan groups, our campaign – Playfair Qatar – argued that, if urgent action wasn’t taken, the Qatar World Cup would be built on the blood and misery of thousands of workers.

In 2017, a much bigger campaign than ours, by the International Trade Union Confederation, made an incredible breakthrough in negotiations with the Government of Qatar. Qatar would urgently revise its labour laws, improving health & safety, introducing a minimum wage and ending the abusive sponsorship system (“kafala”) that gave employers control over almost every aspect of their workers’ lives.

The promises amounted to most of our campaign asks. So Playfair Qatar was paused, its last public statement asking the question, “have we won?”

On the eve of the World Cup, eight years after we first started talking about the terrible conditions faced by Qatar’s international workforce, we wanted to know: did we?

The answer is, of course, complicated. And it depends who you ask.

“Qatar’s system was still chewing up and spitting out workers, leaving them burdened with enormous debts”

There is no doubt that – belatedly, at least – Qatar, under pressure from the ITUC and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), has repaired its terrible labour laws with unprecedented speed. Legally speaking, the landscape faced by workers applying the finishing touches to the World Cup infrastructure is utterly different to the one faced by Qatar’s original workforce of trapped and coerced migrants. 

From that perspective the news is good. No progress was possible in Qatar while its laws not only allowed extreme labour abuse, but actively enabled it. The concessions won by the ITUC are absolutely vital to protecting Qatar’s workers. 

But labour laws are only as good as their enforcement, and the ability of workers to seek justice and compensation for their abuse. And we were hearing a lot of reports from other campaigning organisations, many of whom we had worked alongside for Playfair Qatar, telling us that the picture on the ground did not reflect the progress on Qatar’s statute books. 

And, although this report focuses on worker’s rights, we also have deep concerns about women’s and LGBT+ rights, as well the harassment and imprisonment of journalists and bloggers.

So, the TUC sent a researcher out to Qatar to meet with workers and find out their stories. What they told us was that, for them and many of the people they knew, the Qatari system was still chewing up and spitting out workers, leaving them burdened with enormous debts. 

They told us that kafala’s legacy lived on in overmighty employers controlling their workers, and that they stayed or left Qatar at those employers’ whim.

And they told us that trying to fix or get compensation for these problems remained difficult, expensive and could take years. 

Two things appear to be true, and they are not mutually exclusive. Thanks to global campaigning, using the World Cup as leverage, the typical situation for workers in Qatar is stronger than it was eight years ago. But it is also true that, as we come to the final few weeks of the power of that leverage over Qatar, workers are still paying a shockingly high price to deliver the most expensive World Cup in history. 

Family still waiting to hear truth of Qatar metro worker’s death

Cooperation between groups of workers, international unions and embassies is slowly opening up Qatar to scrutiny, but all we’re learning is the same old bad news.

When it comes to Qatar, and the fate of workers preparing the country to host the World Cup, there’s been a lot of talk about statistics. The ITUC believes 7,000 migrant workers – men of working age – will die in Qatar before the first ball is kicked. Qatar hits back by claiming that there have been no deaths on stadia, while at the same time doing everything it can to restrict access to the worksites and accommodation camps that we know have been claiming lives.

In the end though, it’s important to remember what those numbers refer to. People. Human beings with names. One of those was Juanito B. Pardillo.

Juanito, a construction worker employed digging tunnels for Doha’s new metro system, should have been celebrating his 38th birthday on March 8. Instead, his body was being prepared for repatriation back to his grieving family in the Philippines.

On 28 February, Juanito and his workmates were carrying out excavations. Press reports provide scant details, but apparently it was raining, and company policies state that tunnel work must stop in bad weather. However, for whatever reason, this didn’t happen. Juanito was killed in the cave-in that followed. Four of his workmates were injured.

Qatar then engaged in its usual secrecy. The name of the victim was not released by either the authorities or the company – QVCD, a partner to French contractor Vinci – with the information eventually coming through the press. An investigation into the death is supposedly being conducted, but two weeks after the accident officialdom remains quiet. Without the report, Juanito’s family have no hope of getting compensation, nor can real pressure be put on the company responsible to ensure other workers are safe.

The main part of Qatar’s metro rail scheme, like so much of their current infrastructure boom, was promised as part of their bid to FIFA for the World Cup and, also like much of the infrastructure, it appears that Qatar’s haste to have everything ready in advance of 2022 is leaving workers exposed to poor government health and safety inspection and flouted company regulations. The country’s PR machine has been desperate to downplay the human cost of the World Cup, focusing on the (officially, at least) positive health & safety record of the stadia themselves, but it cannot hide the dangerous reality for those getting the country ready for the tournament.

Workers in Qatar have begun the process of – very carefully, given Qatar’s hostility to its migrant labour force looking after itself – setting up support networks to share health and safety education and legal information. However, operating under Qatar’s restrictive laws, these networks can only do so much to challenge lazy employers or the notoriously slow labour courts.   Some embassies, notably that of the Philippines, are helping facilitate this process but, as Juanito’s case demonstrates, in the end Qatar still holds all the cards.

The BWI, the global union federation representing construction workers and responsible for the “Red Card for FIFA” campaign, is demanding urgent action not just from the government, but from Vinci as well, to assess the negligence of its partner company and take responsibility for compensating the family and preventing future tragedies. All western companies in Qatar must work with a local partner, making joint liability an inescapable moral requirement. BWI are also pressing QDVC to accept their inspectors on of all its worksites, which would be the first widespread trade union inspections of Qatar’s construction industry.

In the meanwhile, Juanito B. Pardillo’s family now have his body but still no formal news of why he died and whether anything will ever be done to hold those responsible to account.



Image © Shell https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Qatar World Cup dream is a nightmare for workers

Photo ITUC/Matilde Gattoni

by Stephen Cavalier

I had heard a lot about the exploitation of the migrant workers building Qatar’s World Cup dream. But nothing prepared me for the shock of seeing it first hand on a UNITE delegation last week organised by Building Workers’ International (BWI – the global construction unions’ federation.)

Unions are banned in Qatar, but the BWI does fantastic work supporting migrant workers there, working with the workers themselves, support groups, embassies and other agencies to try to secure even the most basic rights afforded under Qatari law.

Our delegation, led by UNITE General Secretary Len McCluskey and including two Labour MPs, Ian Lavery and Naz Shah, saw this inspiring work in action. We also heard and saw the suffering caused by the exploitation of migrant workers and the conditions in which they work and live.

Qatar operates the kafala system which means that workers are tied to their ‘sponsor’ employer for a minimum of two years. Workers told us how they were recruited by agencies in their home country – the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal – paying huge sums to the agency which it would take them years of work to repay. They arrived in Qatar to find that their pay was even lower than they were promised. And, scandalously, they were paid different amounts depending on their home country and nationality, with Nepalese workers paid the least of all.

One group of workers told us how they had worked for more than four months before they received their first pay. Many told of us of the long hours: being collected in buses at 4am to be taken to construction sites in the punishing heat, not returning until 10pm at night. And returning in many cases to insanitary and overcrowded accommodation. In the dormitories of a labour camp near Al Khor, we spoke to the construction workers living 8 or 10 to a room, in bunk beds, with no privacy or means of hygiene, and saw cooking, washing and toilet facilities which no person should be forced to endure. Others told us of the dangerous conditions, long hours, poverty pay and of the accidents they had seen with colleagues crushed by equipment or collapsing from fatal exhaustion in the searing temperatures.

We also met women hospitality workers who had been forced to escape from their employers after suffering exploitation and physical abuse. They were being sheltered in a ‘safe house’ unable to work and with no pay. The kafala system means that they cannot leave their jobs, work for another employer or leave the country to go home unless their employer releases them, but they are bravely pursuing a case. These women were working in swanky hotels, owned by multi-national household names, yet suffering terrible exploitation.

All this in the richest country in the world. A country that wants to enhance its prestige through international sport: the World Cup 2022 secured in controversial circumstances; and similar controversy now around the World Athletics Championships. Everywhere we travelled in the gridlocked highways of Doha amongst the proliferating skyscrapers, adverts for international sporting events due to take place in this tiny desert country: tennis, cycling, the list goes on.

Yet the contradiction is that Qatar’s reputation is suffering – and deservedly so. Suffering not just from the circumstances in which these tournaments were secured, but suffering from the increasing international concern at the conditions endured by migrant workers.

Qatar is sensitive to this, which is why the higher-profile projects have better conditions. We saw a labour camp for workers building the metro system which was clean, well-ordered, with catering, washing, medical and welfare facilities and safety training and protection. Workers were still tied to the employer; there were still four men to a room; the hours were still long; the pay better but still poor. We were told that there were several delegations visiting this camp every day because these were the conditions that the authorities wished international visitors to see – not the conditions that we had seen the day before near Al Khor.

Yet that example shows that there is no reason why all workers cannot be employed and housed in better conditions. The money is there. The means are there. What is needed is continued international pressure. And pressure from international governments and agencies, including the UK.

And the work of unions. The international union campaign is hitting home. The Qatari government has been rocked by the powerful advocacy of the ITUC. The TUC here in the UK has led an effective campaign. And the BWI is doing great work internationally, in the countries where migrant workers originate, and in Qatar itself.

We saw this for ourselves when we met groups of workers with the BWI, saw the support and practical help they provide and, in my case in particular, when I was privileged to participate in a legal training seminar for volunteers supporting and representing their fellow Filipino workers who were suffering exploitation and hardship and seeking to enforce the limited rights available to them under the Qatari system.

There are two million migrant workers in Qatar, alongside the 250,000 Qatari population. We must do what we can to ensure that these abuses are highlighted and stopped by raising the issue in the media alongside our union colleagues and by pressure on FIFA, governments and international companies operating in Qatar.

Qatar’s reputation is almost as valuable to it as its oil – it will be built on sand if these abuses are not ended.

This post first appeared in Stronger Unions

Stephen Cavalier is Chief Executive of Thompsons Solicitors. He set up Thompsons’ Employment Rights unit in 1995, the first unit dedicated solely to trade union law. He is a past chair of the Industrial Law Society. 

New ITUC Report “Qatar: Profit and Loss” Workers Paying with Lives as Companies Extract Billions in Profit

A new report from the International Trade Union Confederation estimates that $15 billion profit will be made by companies working in Qatar on infrastructure for the controversial 2022 FIFA World Cup using up to 1.8 million migrant workers who are modern day slaves.

Read the report: Qatar: Profit and Loss. Counting the cost of modern day slavery in Qatar: What price freedom?

The report released on International Migrants Day is critical of Qatar for failing to deliver changes to labour rights or compliance, and warns construction companies, hotels, retail chains and UK and US Universities the cost of doing business in a slave state.

“Every CEO operating in Qatar is aware that their profits are driven by appallingly low wage levels – wages that are often based on a system of racial discrimination – and that these profits risk safety, resulting in indefensible workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths,” said Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation.

Using new data uncovered in Qatar’s own government statistics, the ITUC estimates 7,000 workers will die before a ball is kicked in the 2022 World Cup.

“Qatar still refuses to make public the actual death toll of migrant workers or the real causes of death. The vast majority of the workers are working to deliver the huge World Cup infrastructure programme by the 2022 deadline. By analysing Qatar’s own statistics and health reports over the past three years, previous reports of 4,000 workers dying by 2022 are a woeful underestimate. The real fatality rate is over 1,000 per year, meaning that 7,000 workers will die by 2022. Qatar hospital emergency departments are receiving 2,800 patients per day – 20% more from 2013 to 2014,” said Sharan Burrow.

Estimates for spending on infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup are as high as $220 billion, involving major international construction companies profiled in the ITUC report from Australia, Europe and the USA including ACS (Spain), Bechtel (USA), Besix (Belgium), Bouygues (France), Carillion (UK), CCC (Greece), Ch2M Hill (USA), CIMIC (Australia), Hochtief (Germany), Porr (Austria) and QDVC (France).

“This crisis goes beyond the borders of Qatar, involving companies across the world who are profiting from the kafala labour system which enslaves workers. The Khalifa Stadium project, a showcase World Cup venue, pays workers $1.50 an hour.
It is estimated that more than 40 percent of the world’s top 250 international construction contractors are participating in projects in Qatar. Shareholders with investments in fourteen different stock exchanges are exposed to the profits using modern day slavery under the kafala system,” said Sharan Burrow.

While the government continues to refuse legal reform, the ITUC is calling on companies there to:

  • Give workers exit visas immediately and without condition, and allow workers to transfer to another job;
  • Allow workers a collective voice to raise complaints and negotiate together with their employer;
  • Establish a single minimum living wage rate for all migrants;
  • In the absence of effective government labour inspection or a labour court, ensure fair and effective inspection, compliance and dispute resolution within their operations including subcontractors.

Since the ITUC released its special report The Case Against Qatar in March 2014, nothing has changed for workers in Qatar. The Government has failed to bring its laws in line with international standards and the much promised labour law, which will not come into effect until 2017, adds a new layer of repression for migrant workers.

“Qatar’s labour laws are ruinous for workers. All the government has done is to codify slavery. Employers can now even lend out workers to another employer without the workers consent for up to a year.”

The ITUC has called on the Qatar authorities to take immediate steps:

  • End the kafala system starting with the elimination of the exit visa;
  • Allow worker representation – a collective voice with elected representatives and workplace committees;
  • Employment contracts through direct employment or large, reputable, recruitment companies;
  • A national minimum wage for all workers, and collective bargaining rights;
  • Proper labour inspection and grievance mechanisms, inclusive of contractors, and an independent labour court.

The ITUC is also demanding that FIFA, which has failed to exert any real pressure on Qatar, to put workers’ rights at the centre of 2022 World Cup preparations.

Watch the ITUC multi-media investigation: Qatar Exposed

(this piece originally appeared on the ITUC news website)

Qatar asks for patience – to perfect its PR strategy

Qatar seems to be confused about what message to put out to its critics, simultaneously accusing them of a conspiracy whilst also meekly asking for more time to put an end to the abuse of migrant construction workers  – currently preparing the country to host the 2022 World Cup. However, with Qatar’s poor track record on delivering reform, only implementing real change will make us critics go away. Read more