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“Malicious, fabricated and false foreign press reports” concerning the welfare of low-income expats in Qatar are the result of “political conspiracies,” Hussain Al Mulla, Undersecretary at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, has told the Al Raya newspaper.

Responding to widespread international criticism of the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar – particularly laborers from Nepal – Al Mulla said that Qatar’s reputation is “a red line:”

“We refuse any skepticism in the keenness of the state to respect laborers’ rights, and its ability to provide adequate housing and a safe working environment.

We proved with numbers and documents that the number of Nepalese laborers’ deaths does not exceed 15 from more than 400,000 Nepalese labors working in many projects in the country, from which they transfer amounts of money to their countries that exceeds $1 billion annually.”

Al Mulla was responding to a report last month in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, which included interviews with Nepali expats here about their poor working and living conditions.

The report suggests that the alleged “slave labor” abuses raise serious questions about Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, as many of these young men are working on projects related to the games.

Representatives from Qatar and Nepal held a press conference in Doha last week to refute the allegations. Narendra Bahadur Bhat, coordinator of Non-Resident Nepalese Association (NARA) Middle East disputed the number of Nepali deaths reported in the Guardian, which totaled 44 workers between June 4 and Aug. 8.

The government has also hired international law firm DLA Piper to investigate the Guardian’s allegations, the Peninsula reports.

Advisor to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs Ali Ahmed Al Kholeifi said that when the report is completed, the ministry will “decide on an appropriate course of action,” adding that “Qatar takes its international obligations very seriously.”

Labor law changes

Despite denying the findings of the Guardian’s report, Al Mulla confirmed to Al Raya that the government plans to amend parts of Qatar’s Labor Law to comply with requirements set out by World Cup organizers.

He also pointed out that the labor law already includes severe penalties for any company which violates labor rights, and added that the ministry plans to increase the number of inspectors by 100, from 150 to 250, to help enforce these laws.

Mulla’s interview tallies with comments made by Minister for Labor and Social Affairs, Abdullah Saleh Al Khulaifi, who has also announced a renewed commitment to law enforcement, including hiring more translators and setting up more branch offices of the Labor Department in areas of high concentration of workers, such as the Industrial Area.

Meanwhile, a delegation from an international labor federation has arrived in Doha to carry out an assessment of laborers’ working and living conditions, AFP reports.

The visit of a team from the Building and Wood Workers’ International Federation was planned before the Guardian published the results of its investigation.

Thoughts?

Credit: Translation by Amin Isaac; Photo by Penny Yi Wang

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Updated with new remarks from the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee

A leading British newspaper has run a front-page in-depth report and video examining the rising death toll of Nepali workers in Qatar.

The Guardian’s report, put together by Kathmandu-based journalist and teacher Pete Pattisson, focuses on the plight of young men from Nepal who often take out huge loans to work in Doha, only to arrive here to find lower salaries and poor living and working conditions.

The report suggests that the alleged “slave labor” abuses raise serious questions about Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, as many of these young men are working on projects related to the games: 

“The overall picture is of one of the richest nations exploiting one of the poorest to get ready for the world’s most popular sporting tournament.”

The Guardian refers to statistics obtained from the Nepal Embassy here, which states that July was the deadliest month on record for Nepalese expats in Qatar, with 32 deaths in all. 

Most of the deceased were construction workers in their 20s who died of cardiovascular disease, an embassy official told Doha News last month.

The report also includes a video with interviews of a Nepal-based family who wail as they receive the body of their child, a 16-year-old boy who obtained fake documents in order to secure a job in Qatar. He died just two months after he arrived in Qatar, apparently from cardiac arrest. 

 Also detailed in the report:

  • Evidence of forced labor at the Lusail City construction site;
  • Interviews with some Nepali expats who say they have not been paid for months, and have had their salaries withheld so they don’t run away;
  • The highlighting of illegal confiscation of passports and ID cards;
  • That some workers are not being allowed access to drinking water during their working day; and
  • That 30 Nepali men have sought refuge at their embassy in Doha, complaining of lack of pay and a failure of their company to process their residence permits.

Official responses

The newspaper has published responses from the Lusail Real Estate Development Company, the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, the Labor Ministry and engineering firm Halcrow, who are all featured in the Guardian’s report.

The Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee previously told the paper that it’s “deeply concerned” about the allegations.

UPDATE | 1:55pm

After the report was released, it issued another statement:

“Like everyone viewing the video and images, and reading the accompanying texts, we are appalled by the findings presented in The Guardian’s report.

There is no excuse for any worker in Qatar, or anywhere else, to be treated in this manner.   

The health, safety, well-being and dignity of every worker that contributes to staging the 2022 FIFA World Cup is of the utmost importance to our committee and we are committed to ensuring that the event serves as a catalyst toward creating sustainable improvements to the lives of all workers in Qatar.”

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Meanwhile, a spokesperson from Lusail, where 18 workers were injured following a bridge collapse earlier this month, has said it’s taking the alleged abuses very seriously:

Lusail City will not tolerate breaches of labour or health and safety law. We continually instruct our contractors and their subcontractors of our expectations and their contractual obligations to both us and individual employees. We are extremely concerned at the allegations highlighted to us.”

Meanwhile, Qatar’s Ministry of Labor has responded by highlighting Qatar’s Labor Law, and the protection it provides to workers, detailing rules including the provision of water; restrictions on working during the hottest part of the day during the summer months; the provision of food and decent accommodation; and regular salary payments.

The Ministry of Labor added that it is “committed to ensuring that all workers are treated in a fair and just manner.”

You can read the full responses here.

Thoughts?

A recent disagreement in the Al Jazeera English newsroom has prompted the Guardian to write a piece questioning the channel’s editorial independence from Qatar, which pays most of its bills.

The incident took place last week after the Qatari Emir’s address to the United Nations, urging Arab countries to take military action in Syria.

Producers put together a video report of the Syria debate, but led with excerpts of US President Barack Obama’s speech. News director Salah Negm apparently ordered the package to be re-edited to start with the Emir’s remarks, AJE journalists confirmed to Doha News.

Here’s the rejigged package:

The Guardian report goes on to say:

The episode left a bitter taste among staff amid complaints that this was the most heavy-handed editorial intervention at the global broadcaster, which has long described itself as operating independent of its Qatari ownership.

An al-Jazeera spokesman said the emir’s speech was “a significant development” that day and the broadcaster “consequently gave it prominence”.

Whether Negm’s directive was a sign of Qatari interference or just a question of news judgment is up for debate, and one that the AJE staff don’t seem to be able to agree on.

“I disagree with many of his decisions, but on this one, the Qatari angle was the most newsworthy re: Syria. I think he made the right call,” one producer who was working that night told Doha News.

Another AJE producer told us:

Salah definitely influences editorial direction (that’s his job anyway) and the decision to lead with that came from him…

Syria’s almost the default lead these days if there’s nothing else. But yes, there is a feeling that this was the most heavy-handed editorial edict in a long time.

Al Jazeera staff we spoke with are not being identified as the network bars employees from speaking to the media without permission.

Perceptions of bias in the newsroom have grown since last year, in part spurred by the resignation of Wadah Khanfar as the network’s director general after eight years at the helm of Al Jazeera. He was replaced by Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani, a Qatari with no journalism experience. 

A number of Al Jazeera staff – from both the Arabic and English channels – however, say that Al Thani has kept himself away from editorial matters since he began his post in September 2011, leaving it to the channels to sort out.

Thoughts?

Credit: Photo by Paul Keller