The BBC Newsnight team investigating the 1.5 million migrants employed in Qatar on building World Cup 2022 infrastructure were hustled out of the squalid workers’ accommodation outside Doha by angry security men in the time-honoured fashion in December. But not before they had made some disturbing connections between the dreadful conditions workers had to live in and one big British construction company in particular.
In the uproar that followed the decision last week by the Fifa taskforce, which decided Qatar 2022 would have to be played in November and December, the fate of the migrant workers building the show was a long way down the pecking order. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) estimates that 4,000 will perish by the time the project is ready, which makes the Egyptian pharaohs’ pyramids project look like a triumph of health and safety.
In the aftermath, Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive, fulminated about the disruption to the Christmas fixtures programme. Others wondered aloud if a mid-season World Cup finals might give the England team a chance, qualification permitting. Greg Dyke, the Football Association chairman, said that it was “the best of the bad options”.
If the Nepali, Sir Lankan, Indian and Bangladeshi workers in the Qatari labour dormitories had access to television, radio or the internet, they might have been forgiven for thinking that English football was sorely lacking a Martin Luther King for 21st century workers’ rights.
Yet, the truth is that the stories of these young men, sent to the Gulf to provide for their families back home, will not go away. Their deaths, at the rate of two a day last year among the Nepali workers alone, is an inconvenient but persistent reality for Fifa. They are dying in the 50C heat, unable to leave because the Qatari kafala system prevents them from going home without their employer’s permission.
If change cannot be effected through Fifa, or a Qatari government that seems unwilling to allow anything to stand in the path of its plans to host the World Cup finals on its own terms, then the only option for those who want to do something is to strike closer to home.
The curious aspect of Newsnight’s investigation by the journalist Sue Lloyd-Roberts was that the men she interviewed in a camp outside Doha were wearing hard hats carrying the logo of the British construction company Carillion.
Newsnight discovered that workers on the project in the centre of Doha had faced serious issues, including delayed payment of wages and unsafe working conditions, while one had spent much of his salary on treatment for asthma he had developed in Qatar. They woke at 4am, began work at 6am, finished at 5pm and lived in conditions described by one worker as not “fit for humans”.
The official Carillion response at the time was that the workers in question were provided by a subcontractor. The British company says on its website that subcontractors are required to abide by the health and safety standards applicable in the United Kingdom. Wages, living conditions and employment rights must comply with Qatari labour laws.
Carillion launched an investigation into the claims by Newsnight and when I called the company yesterday, it said that investigation was still “ongoing”. It said it was “deeply concerned and surprised” at the allegations. The company also said the “Downtown Doha” project is not directly related to the 2022 World Cup finals.
The ITUC believes that it is simply not enough for international construction companies to abide by the laws in Qatar. It says that if Fifa and the Qataris will not push for change to the kafala system and the appalling conditions of workers there ahead of 2022, then it is up to the construction companies themselves to take the lead.
“Every multinational company that is operating in Qatar must recognise that even where a government runs the economy on the basis of modern slavery it can still step up to the plate and recognise workers’ rights,” said Tim Noonan, a director at the ITUC. “Any company that does not do that will come under enormous pressure. They are not going to be able to dodge the spotlight.”
One year ago, the United Nations International Labour Organisation called upon Qatar to give migrant workers, around 75-80 per cent of the Gulf state’s population, some basic rights that you and I might take for granted. They were the right to form trade unions, engage in collective bargaining on wages and have some form of legal protection, as well as a reform of the hated kafala system.
It comes as little surprise that the ITUC says no meaningful progress has been made and the workforce – that could be as many as 1.75m people – continues to work with little or no rights whatsoever. Yet that has not stopped the international trade union organisations putting some pressure on the companies that have taken some of the £200bn worth of building contracts in Qatar.
The online campaign communityhas a petition signed by more than 790,000 people calling upon Qatar and the chief executive of the US construction company CH2M Hill, Jacqueline Hinman, a major contractor for the 2022 World Cup infrastructure, to give workers basic rights. Calls to both CH2M Hill’s London and Colorado offices did not yield a response yesterday.
The general secretary of the construction trade union UCATT, Steve Murphy, recalled how he managed to help 22 Nepali workers he found living in the same room during a visit to Qatar in March last year. Murphy said that the men had not been paid for months and, under the kafala system, had no access to their passports or even their Qatari ID papers.
They were effectively prisoners in the country and yet still working. In order to eat, they relied on a Nepali charity which managed to supply them with a meal every three days. “When I was talking to them one of the managers gatecrashed our meeting,” Murphy recalled yesterday. “I said to him, ‘This is worse than slavery’. He looked at me confused. I said, ‘At least the slaveowners of the past used to feed their slaves.’”
On that occasion, Murphy’s intervention meant that the men were given back their passports and were able to return to Nepal. The sad thing is that the stories of workers being forced to pay back enormous fees to recruitment agents; of deaths and injuries and appalling living conditions are so commonplace now they are losing their capacity to shock. But they are not going away.
Unfortunately, as an issue for Fifa, the rights of the workers comes some distance behind driving the winter staging of the tournament through the resistance from the powerful European leagues. Once that is done you have to wonder whether there will be any change to the lives of the hundreds of thousands of workers.
“A blood-stained World Cup” is what Steve Murphy called it, and he has seen for himself the lives of those who are building Qatar 2022.