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November 18, 2013

Rights Campaigners: Qatar World Cup Workers Suffer ‘Widespread Abuses’

by Henry Ridgwell

Construction is getting under way in Qatar on the stadiums, hotels and infrastructure that will host visitors to the 2022 FIFA World Cup (football/soccer finals). But human rights group Amnesty International, along with the United Nations, says the millions of migrants that Qatar is relying on to build the venues suffer from widespread abuses.

Toiling away on vast construction sites springing up from the sands and artificial islands, Qatar’s 1.35-million-strong army of foreign workers is the manpower behind Doha’s ever-changing skyline.

But human rights groups say the workers’ living and working conditions fail to match Qatar’s futuristic ambitions.

Amnesty International found many workers living 10 or 15 in one small room with no air conditioning, in temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius.

Between the blocks there's overflowing sewage and rotting trash.

Many of the migrants were also denied their wages, says Audrey Gaughran, director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.

“We found workers who hadn’t been paid for months - six to nine months - and were still being compelled to go to work," she said. "We found workers living in terribly squalid conditions in labor camps.”

Most of the workers are from south and Southeast Asia - countries like Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. Even if they wanted to return home, they can’t, says Gaughran.

“Migrant workers cannot leave the country without an exit permit, and their employer has to sign off on that," she said. "And they can’t change jobs without their employer’s permission.”

Among six workers living in a tiny room without any power is Aniruda Kumar, who is from Nepal.  He said that he and his friends eat once a day and the rest of the time they stay hungry. "Our rice is finished and we have no money for any more," he said.  "We sleep hungry, but what can we do?"

Rights groups are also sounding the alarm on workplace safety.

The International Trade Union Confederation has warned that based on current mortality figures, construction for the World Cup could cost the lives of 4,000 migrant workers by 2022.

Bhupendra Malla Thakuri, also from Nepal, finally won a court battle against his employers this year after an accident in 2011 that nearly killed him. Thakuri said he used to work from 4 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. non-stop. If he asked to stop and eat, the company official used to say, ‘What have you come here for, to work or to eat?’

The Qatari government has yet to respond to the Amnesty report but says conditions for World Cup construction workers will be ‘suitable.’

The United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Francois Crepeau, says now is the time to act.

"It probably increases the challenges, because the number of workers will increase again quite dramatically in the coming years," he said. "But it also provides an opportunity because of the visibility, the scrutiny under which Qatar finds itself.”

Football’s world governing body FIFA has said it will raise the issues with Qatari authorities. Human rights groups say FIFA has the power to go much further in pushing for better workers’ rights.