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The under-construction Qatar National Museum, seen in 2014.

Damon McDonald/Flickr

The under-construction Qatar National Museum, seen in 2014.

A new report has uncovered evidence of human rights abuses involving workers at two of Qatar’s most prominent construction projects.

In a report this week, the Guardian said it interviewed several men working on the Qatar National Museum and Doha Festival City shopping center whose employers had seized their passports, withheld their wages and prevented them from leaving the country.

The men worked for a labor supply company and said they were provided substandard housing and paid QR800 a month, plus an additional QR200 for food.

The report raises fresh questions about the responsibility of large multinational construction firms to police the labor practices of its subcontractors, as well as Qatar’s enforcement of its own laws.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Chantelle D'mello / Doha News

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

The Guardian report was published the same day that the US government said the Qatar government has taken “limited action to prevent (labor) violations and improve working conditions.”

The assessment is contained in the US State Department’s chapter on the Gulf state, released in tandem with more than 175 other country reports on human rights practices around the world.

On Qatar, the US government says there were “continuing indications of forced labor” and that “enforcement problems were in part due to insufficient training and lack of personnel.”

‘If I had known…I definitely wouldn’t have come’

Qatar’s National Museum, located near the junction of the Corniche and Ras Abou Aboud St, is designed to resemble a desert rose. It is behind schedule after announcing a tentative 2016 opening and has yet to announce a new launch date.

The electrical and plumbing work for the museum is being led by a firm named BK Gulf, whose several shareholders include UK-based Interserve and Balfour Beatty.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Lance Cenar

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

In a common practice used on many construction sites, BK Gulf hired subcontractors and labor supply firms to help it complete its work.

Speaking to the Guardian, several of the employees of an unnamed labor supply firm said they were receiving a lower salary than what they were promised in their home country.

“If I had known I would only get 800 riyals, and 200 riyals for food, I definitely wouldn’t have come,” one man was quoted as saying.

The refrain is a common one among blue-collar expats in Qatar employed by subcontractors.

Qatar Museums did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement to Doha News, an Interserve spokesperson said its remuneration rates are in line with comparable construction firms in Qatar.

However, the company added that it was investigating the allegations contained in the Guardian article.

“We are fully committed to supporting and protecting the health, safety and welfare of our employees and those working as part of our supply chain,” it said.

The statement also said the company does not seize its employees’ passports or prevent them from leaving the country.

Doha Festival City

However, a spokesperson declined to answer questions about how it enforces similar standards on its subcontractors, which the Guardian accused of forced labor at Doha Festival City.

The shopping center north of Qatar’s capital is one of several under-construction mega-malls and recently pushed back its opening date to February 2017.

Aerial view of the mall

Doha Festival City

Aerial view of the mall

The Guardian interviewed a man who said his employer refused to let him return to his home country after he tried to quit when his salary was cut from QR1,100 to QR900 a month, quoting him as saying:

“I have told the (manager) I want to go … but the company said, ‘There are no staff now so you have to stay here for two months and then you can go.’”

A spokesperson for Doha Festival City said it had no comment on the Guardian’s report.

Labor supply firms

Human rights experts say employees of small subcontractors and labor supply companies are particularly vulnerable to abuse for several reasons.

These smaller companies are more likely to be on site for shorter periods, have informal employment arrangements with workers and be in a financially precarious situation, which could cause them to cut corners if they start running out of work, Amnesty International researcher Mustafa Qadri previously told Doha News.

While it’s not clear what steps the lead contractors at Doha Festival City and the Qatar National Museum took to prevent abuse in their labor supply chain, other organizations have also had difficulty keeping abusive subcontractors off their sites.

Construction at Khalifa Stadium

Peter Kovessy / Doha News

Khalifa Stadium

Last month, Amnesty published a report that said employees of labor supply firms that sent workers to Khalifa International Stadium for the World Cup project were subject to human rights abuses including deceptive recruitment practices, retention of passports, inadequate accommodation, delays in payments of salaries as well as failure to provide and renew residence permits.

That’s despite local organizers having welfare standards in place that apply to all workers on its site.

Responding to Amnesty’s report, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy said the offending firms had been banned from its projects and had strengthened its oversight measures by hiring an independent auditor.

Thoughts?

Rendering of Doha Festival City

Doha Festival City

Rendering of Doha Festival City

One of Qatar’s biggest under-construction malls has pushed back its opening date by four months, due to issues with the “supporting infrastructure,” the chief executive of Doha Festival City said today.

The mall, which is north of Doha on Al Shamal Road, had previously planned to open its doors to the public this fall on Sept. 29.

Kareem Shamma, the CEO of the mall’s owner and developer BASREC, said in February that he was confident of meeting that deadline and that there was a “day-to-day plan” in place to ensure the facility would be finished and ready to welcome its first customers.

However, Shamma said today that while the construction of the mall would still be finished by the end of September, the completion of other infrastructure would not meet that deadline.

Speaking to Doha News, he said:

“The decision (to delay opening) had to be made to give the retailers and the customers the best possible experience. Will they get that best possible experience at the end of September with the current infrastructure? No.”

Shamma declined to give details about which part of the infrastructure had caused the delays, adding: “There are factors outside of our control – the supporting infrastructure that we don’t have control over.”

No blame

Shamma described his relationship with the Qatar government, which runs the roads, telecoms and utilities operators, as having been “great” thus far.

“I’m not going to put the blame on one authority or another.

They (the government) have a very difficult situation on their hands with the massive amount of development going on in the country,” he added.

Aerial view of the mall

Doha Festival City

Aerial view of the mall

All the mall’s retailers have already been told of the delay. “They have been very supportive, Shamma said, adding that there has been no need to compensate stores for the later opening.

The news will doubtless come as a disappointment to shoppers who were anticipating the imminent opening of the mega-mall, which will have around 400 stores including the world’s largest Monoprix, luxury department store Harvey Nichols, 18-screen 4D VOX cinema, an Angry Birds theme park, a themed role play zone, an e-sports gaming arena, F1 and flight simulators and a snow park.

Shamma said “the majority” of stores and entertainment in the 433,000 square meter development will be open on Feb. 1, with the remainder still on track to launch by Spring 2017.

Shamma rejected the idea that the delay would allow Mall of Qatar, which has said it will open its doors in August this year, to steal potential customers.

“We are very confident of our offering and we wish Mall of Qatar all the success – these new malls are helping Qatar’s retail landscape and are driving everyone to do better and better,” Shamma said.

Thoughts?

Photos courtesy of Doha Festival City

Around 400 shops, the food court, cinema and some entertainment offerings at Doha Festival City will all open to the public when the mall debuts on Sept. 29, its chief executive has said.

Work on the development north of Doha on Al Shamal Road has been underway since October 2011, and there is a “day-by-day” plan to ensure the facility is finished and ready to go by this fall, said Kareem Shamma, the CEO of BASREC – the mall’s owner and developer.

Once complete, the 433,000 square meter development, which already includes Qatar’s first Ikea, will be one of the country’s biggest commercial centers.

It will have 550 units, a 19 18-screen 4D VOX cinema, an Angry Birds theme park, a themed role play zone, an e-sports gaming arena, F1 and flight simulators and a snow park.

In an interview with Doha News, Shamma said said:

“The mall will open its doors for trading on Sept. 29. This will be the entire mall – we took the decision to go for the whole thing. All the corridors will be open, the food court, the cinemas and at least one or two of the theme parks will be open.

Of the total 550 units we have, around 400 of them will be open and operating on that day.”

Despite the scale of the project, Shamma added that he also foresees no issues with securing the necessary operating licenses from Qatar authorities to open in seven months time – though Civil Defense approval is a hurdle that contributes to delays in many construction projects here.

What’s done so far

Unofficial drone footage of the mall’s site, taken last month and posted on YouTube, gives a bird’s eye view of the construction progress so far:

With the mall now 90 percent leased out, Shamma and his team invited retailers on a tour of the site last month to give them an update and convince them of the planned opening date.

“They came very skeptical. No one believes here that something will open on time. But they left very, very convinced,” he said.

Describing the progress on the center so far, Shamma added:

“Inside (the mall) you see clean corridors, escalators already installed, shop units already hoarded off and ready for tenants to fit out.”

Retailers' tour in Jan. 2016

Doha Festival City/Facebook

Retailers’ tour in Jan. 2016

One of the mall’s flagship stores, the upmarket British brand Harvey Nichols, has already been handed over to the company to start designing and fitting the interiors, he added.

“We needed to let the retailers know we are serious about the opening date and for them to be ready. It was a huge decision to make, to announce a fixed date for opening. We had to sit down with the contractor, to make sure he was on board with it.

We’ve had a very collaborative relationship. We said – no matter what, we will solve the problems together. That has been the story through all this project,” Shamma said.

A detailed plan has been drawn up for the remaining construction during the seven months leading up to the mall’s launch.

“We asked the contractor – how are you going to finish all the details, when are you going to start tiling the floors, doing the wall finishings? We have a day-by-day plan right up to that moment we open our doors,” he said.

Rendering of Doha Festival City

Doha Festival City

Rendering of Doha Festival City

With so many major construction projects underway in Qatar, entities responsible for giving operating licenses such as Civil Defense are under pressure, which often contributes to delays in the facilities opening on time.

However, Shamma said he is “reasonably confident” that Festival City will not suffer such setbacks.

“We recognize the limitations of the government departments – there is a lot of development and they have limited resources. But our project shareholders have already sat with the government authorities.”

He continued:

“We are employing consultants to make sure we know what needs to be done to pass before we even apply to the government. That makes life easier for everyone. We have built up a good relationship – one of trust. We have kept them fully informed and they have been wonderful, which has helped to make the inspection process as smooth as possible.”

However, Shamma admitted that stores would be under pressure to ensure they meet the Sept. 29 deadline.

There is a shortage of quality fit-out contractors in Qatar and they will be in demand in the coming months not only from Festival City tenants, but also from stores in rival developments such as Mall of Qatar, which is also scheduled to launch later this year, he said.

Though at least some of the mall’s entertainment complex will open on schedule, construction is continuing on the mall’s southern end and it will likely be early 2017 before all the theme parks are up and running, he added.

Plans for a yet-to-be named adjacent hotel and a 1,400-capacity convention center have also hit some delays and are now schedule to open in early 2018, around six months later than previously announced.

Mall of Qatar

Work also appears to be continuing apace at rival Mall of Qatar, on the Dukhan Road.

Photos on the mall’s website dated from January this year show sections of the interior already finished and escalators installed:

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The mall’s deputy managing director Shem Krey said in a statement in November that construction of the structure’s core and shell was 85 percent complete.

The development has already pushed back its scheduled opening date to Q3 this year, to give more time for stores’ interior fit-out, meaning that the two biggest malls in the country are now planning to open at the same time.

Thoughts?