Qatar has failed to keep its promises on improving appalling conditions for migrant workers, said Amnesty International in a new report on Thursday.
A total of 441 migrant workers from India and Nepal died in Qatar last year, subjected to dangerous working conditions, extreme temperatures, slave-like employment terms, and squalid living conditions as they constructed buildings and massive infrastructure projects, many for for the soccer's 2022 World Cup.
"Nothing has changed," Amnesty's Qatar researcher Mustafa Qadri told VICE News. Qadri, who has interviewed more than migrant 200 workers during visits to Qatar over the last eight months, continued: "Wherever I went there was a sea of workers wanting to talk to me, there's a real sense of desperation.
"It's heartbreaking and so wrong on a human level that in a country that's the wealthiest per capita in the world people are being denied such basic rights which you or I would take for granted — being paid an agreed wage, being protected from abuse or being able to take the odd day off to visit loved ones."
Amnesty has been monitoring progress on nine core labor rights issues since Qatar announced it would make major reforms in May 2014. After attracting global criticism, the country said 12 months ago it would abolish the kafala system — which all Gulf states operate apart from Iraq — under which migrant workers are tied to a single employer and have to get permission from their employer to leave the country. It also promised to increase the fine for employers which confiscated passports and introduce an electronic payment system to improve transparency and make sure workers got paid on time.
But in the report released today, Amnesty said little had changed in law, policy, and practice for the 1.5 million migrant workers in Qatar — who represent 99.9 percent of the private sector workforce and 83 percent of the total Qatari population. There had been no progress at all in four areas, very limited progress in another four, and partial progress in just one.
Qatar has failed to improve migrant workers' status and employment terms, said the human rights group. The government is discussing new laws, but no reforms have taken place and there is no timetable for the approval and implementation of draft laws.
Migrant workers are still denied exit from Qatar, still have their passports confiscated, and still need their employer's permission to change jobs. They are also forbidden from joining trade unions.
Limited progress had been also made on workplace and living standards. Conditions on construction sites remain harsh and dangerous and many workers are still forced to work during the hottest part of the day — when temperatures can top 100 degrees — despite Qatari authorities saying they are actively seeking to prohibit this. There is still a lack of labor inspectors to check and enforce workplace and living standards despite an acknowledgement there needs to be more, according to Amnesty.
"I was shocked and sad when I first visited the workers camps," said Qadri. "When you go to [Qatari capital] Doha, the first thing you see is the glitzy hotels, a clearly very wealthy society. Then when you get to the dusty industrial areas where the workers live you find rudimentary concrete buildings stinking of sewage with dirty, appalling kitchens, and bathrooms which sometimes don't even have toilet doors or sinks. There's such a disconnect between the Doha that tourists see and the reality behind it."
Some progress has been made on one of the most significant reforms promised last May — to introduce an electronic wage payment system. In February, Qatar's Emir approved an amendment to the Labor Law requiring businesses to pay workers through direct bank deposits. The amendment is still in the process of being implemented, with businesses given six months to comply, but the Minister of Labor still has the discretion to extend this deadline, said the report. Meanwhile there is no answer on how authorities will protect the tens of thousands of employees who work informally or do not receive regular pay.
Ranjith, a Sri Lankan national who works as a metal worker, has not been paid in the five months since he arrived. He has no ID or contract and lives in a small room with seven other men in a dusty, barren workers camp. I wake up at 4am every morning, have my shower and small breakfast then leave my home for work at 5am and arrive an hour later at 6am," he told Amnesty. "To come to Qatar I had to take a loan of 130,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (about $1,000) at an interest rate of 36 percent. I just want to work and earn some money for my wife and children, but because of my sponsor I cannot change jobs. If I go to the police they will arrest and deport me because I do not have an ID."
Paying exorbitant fees to recruitment agencies who often make false promises about pay or working conditions is a common experience for workers. Qatar vowed to stop this "illegal practice" in April 2015, and has bilateral agreements on human trafficking with various countries including India and Nepal, but enforcement of these agreements is "is inconsistent, limited or non-existent," said Amnesty.
Qatar has disputed Amnesty's report, saying significant improvements had been made over the last year, and that the majority of workers earned "considerably more" than they would at home.
"The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MOLSA) appreciates the work and effort involved in this latest report on the State of Qatar by Amnesty International, but we disagree with a number of its claims," it said in a statement. "No one should be in any doubt that we are committed to effective and sustainable change. MOLSA will continue working closely with NGOs, international organizations and the business community to deliver this commitment."
A Guardian investigation last September revealed Nepalese migrants died at a rate of one every two days in Qatar in 2014, and there was evidence of forced labor on a huge World Cup infrastructure project.
Last week the International Trade Union Confederation, and the campaign groups Play Fair Qatar and NewFIfaNow launched a campaign to shame FIFA about conditions faced by workers in Qatar. "More than 62 workers will die for each game played during the 2022 tournament," said Play Fair Qatar.
World Cup organizers say there has not been a single death on one of their stadium projects, which are subject to international construction standards.
FIFA has claimed that the World Cup is proving to be a "catalyst for significant change" to labor laws in Qatar, reported the Associated Press, but outside observers — and World Cup sponsors — say soccer's governing body is not doing enough.
On Thursday, Visa gave the most strongly-worded statement of concern yet from a sponsor. "We continue to be troubled by the reports coming out of Qatar related to the World Cup and migrant worker conditions," it said. "We have expressed our grave concern to FIFA, and urge them to take all necessary actions to work with the appropriate authorities and organizations to remedy this situation and ensure the health and safety of all involved."
Adidas said it recognized there had been significant improvements, but "more needs to be done in a collective effort with all stakeholders involved."
Coca-Cola stressed in a statement that it did not condone human rights abuses. ''We know FIFA is working with Qatari authorities to address questions regarding specific labor and human rights issues,'' said the drinks manufacturer. ''We expect FIFA to continue taking these matters seriously and to work toward further progress.
Qadri told VICE News that the World Cup had actually been a good thing for Qatar's migrant workers, bringing international attention to their plight, though arguably abuses were now happening on a greater scale due to the increase in major construction projects. But he said FIFA had not done nearly enough, especially considering the time and resources that had gone on other issues such as investigating corruption allegations or rescheduling the tournament outside of Qatar's hottest summer months.
"The organization has yet to demonstrate any real commitment to ensuring Qatar 2022 is not built on a foundation of exploitation and abuse," he said.
But Amnesty still had optimism that things could change. "They can't stay the way they are, it's unsustainable," said Qadri. "Qatar does realize something has to give, but there is a lack of political will and a real plan. But time is running out, there is a real sense of urgency now."
Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: @missmbc
All photos via Amnesty International