London: Many thousands of migrant workers on construction sites in Qatar, including those building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, are being subjected to potentially life-threatening heat and humidity, according to new research on the extreme summer conditions in the Gulf.
Hundreds of workers are dying every year, the campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said in a strong statement, but they claim that the Qatar authorities have refused to make necessary information public or adequately investigate the deaths, which could be caused by labouring in the region’s fierce climate.
An analysis of the weather in Doha last summer has also shown that workers on World Cup construction projects were in danger, despite the more advanced system used by the tournament organiser, Humidex , which measures safety levels of heat and humidity.
“Enforcing appropriate restrictions on outdoor work and regularly investigating and publicising information about worker deaths is essential to protect the health and lives of construction workers in Qatar,” Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director, said.
“Limiting work hours to safe temperatures, not set by a clock or calendar, is well within the capacity of the Qatari government and will help protect hundreds of thousands of workers.”
In 2012, the Qatari government revealed 520 people from Bangladesh, India and Nepal — whose citizens travel in their hundreds of thousands to do construction work in the Gulf — had died. Of these, 385, or almost three-quarters, had died “from causes that the authorities neither explained nor investigated”, HRW said.
Last year the Qatari government told HRW that 35 workers died, “mostly from falls, presumably at construction sites”, but this did not take into account hundreds more people who died from heart attacks and other “natural causes”, patchily reported by their countries’ embassies and unexplained by the authorities.
The “Supreme Committee” organising the 2022 World Cup, which Fifa originally voted in 2010 could be played in the summer but has since been moved to winter , is striving to enact higher welfare standards than those generally applied for the two million migrant workers in Qatar.
It has disclosed that 10 workers on World Cup projects died between October 2015 and July this year, classifying eight of these, three of them men in their 20s, as “non-work related” because they resulted from cardiac arrest or respiratory failure. HRW argues that these classifications are meaningless, effectively only a statement that the person has died because their heart and breathing stopped.
HRW said in its statement that such descriptions “obscure the underlying cause of deaths and make it impossible to determine whether [the workers’ deaths] may be related to working conditions, such as heat stress.”
One World Cup construction worker who died, Jaleshwar Prasad, 48, was stated by the Supreme Committee to have suffered cardiac arrest, with the hospital reporting that “work duties were not a contributory factor”.
The temperature in Qatar the day before Prasad died, April 26 2016, peaked at 39C, HRW said.
Nicholas McGeehan, who carried out the research for HRW, accused the Qatari government and the Supreme Committee of a “wilful abdication of responsibility” for the health and safety of workers.
“Their heat protection system is inappropriate and data shows that its enforcement is seriously deficient,” McGeehan said. “That means they are putting stadium workers’ lives at risk.”
Outdoor workers generally in Qatar must not be made to work between 11.30am and 3pm from June 15 to August 31, according to a government decree issued in 2007. HRW describes that measure as “rudimentary” because it does not relate to breaks to the actual working conditions outside those hours.
Analysis of the UK Meteorological Office climate record for Doha last year, seen by the Guardian, showed that according to the Humidex measure, it was not safe for an acclimatised person to do even moderately strenuous work outside, for 1,176 hours, including night time.
The statutory government break added up to only 273 hours last summer, while the Supreme Committee, using the Humidex system, said that it imposed only an additional 150 hours of breaks to that government total.
HRW has called on the Qatari authorities, including the Supreme Committee, to use a different heat stress measure, the wet bulb global temperature (WBGT), which also takes sunlight into account, to avoid “potentially fatal heat-related illnesses.”
Approximately two million immigrants do the overwhelming bulk of manual work in Qatar, where the indigenous population, the world’s wealthiest on average due to the country’s vast reserves of natural gas, numbers only around 300,000. Approximately 800,000 men from the poorer south Asian countries work on the country’s huge construction projects, including 12,000, expected to rise to 35,000, building the World Cup stadiums. During the hot months, migrant workers are frequently the only people seen spending any extended time outside the country’s air-conditioned buildings and vehicles.
The HRW statement criticises the Qatari government for failing to implement the recommendations of a 2014 report by the law firm DLA Piper, which the government itself commissioned. The report followed an international outcry over the number of workers dying in Qatar just as the massive new infrastructure programme was being commissioned.
It noted that the number of deaths in Qatar attributed to cardiac arrest was “seemingly high” and called for transparent publication and investigation, including a legal reform to permit postmortem examinations in cases of sudden deaths. That recommendation has also not been implemented and legal constraints continue. HRW argues that this has prevented inquiries being conducted into how workers are dying and adequate measures being put in place to protect their health and safety.
“We need data on deaths, new laws on heat protection and immediate investigations, otherwise the death toll will continue to rise,” McGeehan said.
The Supreme Committee sent the Guardian a detailed explanation of how its breaks system works using the Humidex measure, and of the restrictions on postmortems in Qatar, but has not yet responded to the criticisms.
A spokesman for the Qatari government said it is committed to labour reforms, and confirmed that it did make public last year deaths and injuries that were “work-related”.
“The government investigates all migrant worker deaths in Qatar and coordinates with the embassies of labour-sending countries to repatriate the deceased,” the spokesman said.