Labor activists complain of ‘manipulation’ during site inspections in Qatar

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International trade union officials who are in Qatar this week to inspect labor camps have gotten off to a rocky start, after being turned away from the massive Msheireb construction site and redirected from an Al Khor labor camp during the first day of their visit yesterday.

The 16-person delegation, made up of officials from Geneva-based Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) and representatives from several European unions, is scheduled to visit numerous construction sites and labor camps across the country this week, including the QDVC light-rail project in Lusail today.

The delegates said they plan to inspect properties by checking for adequate signage, protective equipment and other safeguards, as well as speak to workers directly about their conditions before presenting recommendations to Qatar’s labor ministry officials.

The mission, which has been in the works for months, got underway the day after senior Qatari government officials called recent media reports about the mistreatment of migrant laborers the result of “political conspiracies.”

The team is here on the invitation of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee (QNHRC), which is organizing much of their trip.

Last week, the chairman of the QNHRC denied that forced labor exists in Qatar, saying:

“There have been some problems, owing to the fact that there are 44,000 businesses in the country. But I can assure you that the authorities are constantly making efforts to resolve the problems.”

First day

On Tuesday, the international delegation set out at 11am to the downtown Msheireb project, but were denied access by on-site supervisors who said more time was needed to prepare the site and that they should return later in the week, according to BWI general secretary Ambet Yuson.

In an interview with Doha News, Yuson said he understood that certain steps, such as stopping construction in some areas and readying protective equipment, need to be taken before visitors could enter an active construction zone, especially one as large as the 76-acre Msheireb site.

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But he noted that BWI’s visit has been in the works for five months. “They should have been organized a long time ago,” he said.

UPDATE | 5:14pm

Msheireb Properties has responded to this article, saying:

“As a matter of standard practice, which applies to any construction site visit, we had asked for time to ensure that health and safety procedures associated with securing the construction site were fulfilled to maintain the safety of all involved. We look forward to welcoming the delegation to Msheireb Downtown Doha tomorrow (October 10th) as planned.”

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In contrast, Yuson said other BWI delegates had no issues gaining access Tuesday to two other sites: a hospital project being constructed by Spanish firm OHL and an under-construction plant at Qatalum, a joint venture between Qatar Petroleum and Hydro Aluminium of Norway.

Yuson said both firms have strong policies in place to protect workers and good health and safety committees. However, he added that he remains concerned about subcontractors on the site, some of whom he said have a reputation for withholding wages and failing to provide health and safety orientations to workers.

‘Clear manipulation’

The delegation had requested a visit to CCC’s Al Khor construction site and included it on the group’s draft agenda for the week. However, when they boarded vehicles on Tuesday evening, Yuson said members of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee – which is organizing much of BWI’s trip – told them they would be going to a camp in Ras Laffan Industrial City first.

By the time they visited the “nice” camp – where Yuson said workers told his team that they had been served high-quality food the night before in advance of their visit – there was no longer enough time to see Al Khor.

“It’s a clear manipulation,” he said. “They have not brought us to the place we want to go. They brought us to their showcase (camp). They are making a show.”

Some members of the BWI delegation skipped the official evening program and visited other labor camps on their own. They declined to name those sites, saying they did not want the details of their unofficial itinerary publicized at this time.

Johan Lindholm, president of Swedish trade union Byggnads and a member of the BWI mission, told Doha News he spoke to Indian and Bangladeshi workers who told him about leaving the camp at 6am and not returning from work until 7pm. He said the workers also told him it took them more than two years to save up enough money simply to cover the costs of traveling to Qatar.

“I was a little bit astonished,” he said.

Government response

Qatar labor officials have responded forcefully to reports that its low-income expat workers are subject to much abuse here.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, for example, said last week that it plans to hire more translators and increase the number of inspectors by 100, from 150 to 250, to help enforce laws that are already in place to protect workers.

But days after that, labor ministry officials also said that they had hired international law firm DLA Piper to investigate the veracity of the allegations of abuse, according to a report in the Peninsula.

Speaking to Doha News, Yuson questioned whether DLA Piper would produce an objective report critical of its government client and challenged Qatari officials to allow the International Labour Organization, a UN agency, to conduct an independent investigation.

Yuson said delegates intend to continue visiting several labor camps on their own this week.

He added that he hoped to meet Qatar’s labor minister later in the week – saying this looks increasingly unlikely – to present several proposals. “We have concrete recommendations,” Yuson said.

These include setting a timetable to abolish Qatar’s sponsorship system, enforcing prohibitions against the confiscation of workers’ passports and taking steps to ensure migrant workers have not paid illegal recruitment fees.

Yuson said it was still unclear if labor ministry officials would meet with the BWI delegation, which has scheduled a press conference Thursday before it departs.

Thoughts?

Credit: Top photo by Lubaib Gazir; second photo of Ambet Yuson by Peter Kovessy

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