Qatar Gets Scolded Yet Again for Migrant Worker Abuses

As the tiny Gulf country prepares to host the World Cup in 2022, Amnesty International documents rampant human rights abuses endured by its migrant workers

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Karim Jaafar / AFP / Getty Images

Migrant laborers work on a construction site on October 3, 2013 in Doha in Qatar.

Throughout the summer of 2013, Nepalese laborers who had traveled to Qatar for the promise of jobs, died at a reported rate of nearly one a day. Most were young men who had sudden heart attacks, or died in construction accidents. Laborers report working long hours in 122F heat (50C), sometimes with no access to drinking water. In an investigative report, the Guardian newspaper chronicled how companies would hold two months’ salary from the men to keep them from running away. Some workers reported that subcontractors had confiscated their passports.

Conditions were so bad, that 30 Nepalese men sought refuge at their embassy in Doha as their only means of escape; it took Qatar roughly an hour and a half to replace them.

As the tiny Gulf country prepares to host the soccer World Cup in 2022, it is embarking on an enormous infrastructure project befitting the world’s biggest sporting event. When Qatar made its bid to FIFA, soccer’s governing body, the country submitted plans for 12 stadiums, nine of which would be newly-built. The cost of the World Cup projects alone was $4 billion, plus roads, hotels and restaurants needed for hundreds of thousands of fans. Estimates for the total cost of hosting the event run as high as $200 billion, a staggering sum.

To accomplish this feat, Qatar is relying on a domestic workforce where 94 percent are foreign nationals. They come from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and other countries throughout South and Southeast Asia. Qatar’s population is growing at a rate of twenty new people every hour, the overwhelming majority of whom are migrant workers.

In a new report, Amnesty International blasts Qatar for rampant human rights abuses among its migrant worker population. The human rights organization found that workers often arrive in Qatar and the conditions of their employment are different from what they were promised. Many workers have their passports taken to prevent them from leaving the country. During the day, they’re forced to work in blistering heat with little access to water, and at night they’re often housed in squalid conditions.

In its report in September, the Guardian estimated that if the current rates continue, 4,000 workers would die before a single ball was kicked. The revelations shook many Qataris, but TIME reported in October that many concluded that the article represented only a small group of employers. “The general response was that it is the smallest contractors which are the worst perpetrators,” Patrick Forbes, CEO of Forbes Associates, a public-relations consultancy in Doha, told TIME.

But according to Amnesty’s investigation, migrant worker abuse is much more widespread. Amnesty cites a February 2012 study funded by the Qatar National Research Fund, where 90 percent of workers surveyed said employers held their passports; 20 percent said their salary was different from what had been promised to them before they traveled to Qatar. “Amnesty International would not claim that all migrant workers in Qatar are subject to serious abuse, as researchers spoke to men and women who were broadly satisfied with their working conditions,” the organization said in the report. “Nevertheless Amnesty International’s research – and review of the available independent quantitative data – leads the organization to conclude that exploitation of migrant workers is routine and widespread.”

Amnesty makes several recommendations, beginning with calling for changes to the sponsorship programs under which most workers come to the country, as well as several recommended reforms to Qatari labor law. But the organization saved its final recommendations for FIFA. Soccer officials must “send a strong public message to the Qatari authorities and the construction sector that human rights must be respected in all World Cup related construction projects,” the report said, adding that protection of migrant workers needs to be addressed “as a matter of urgency.”

In a statement to CNN, FIFA said, “The state of Qatar is aware of various issues and has already started to react. FIFA has been informed by the Qatari authorities that the labor laws and labor system will be amended, a process which has already started.” With hundreds of migrant workers streaming into the country every day, the changes may well have to be swift and thorough if Qatar’s grand project to host the World Cup isn’t forever shadowed by the deaths of those brought in to build it.