London: Migrant workers are still dying in Qatar at a rate of more than one a day, intensifying pressure on the Gulf state to improve conditions for the 1.4 million labourers helping it prepare for 2022 World Cup.
On the day that the Qatari authorities confirmed they had received a pivotal independent report into workers’ rights triggered by Guardian revelations of workplace abuses in the country, they on Thursday faced mounting calls to rapidly reform labour laws.
According to official figures, a total of 53 Nepalese workers died between January 2014 and mid-April this year, taking the toll on that country since January 2012 to more than 430.
New figures from the Indian embassy show that 89 migrants died in the first four months of the year, bringing the total of Indian deaths to 567 since January 2012.
Analysis of previous death figures has shown that a high proportion were involved in workplace accidents or suffered sudden heart failure, though some may have died of natural causes and will not have been on building sites.
Qatari officials have stepped up inspections of working conditions and recently gave strong indications that they are prepared to reform labour laws, but it remains unclear whether they will go as far as scrapping an exit-visa system which prevents workers leaving Qatar without the permission of their employer.
There are many examples of migrant workers being effectively held to ransom because their employer refuses to allow them to leave, with French footballer Zahir Belounis being a high-profile example.
The exit-visa system has become an important issue as rights bodies await the publication of an independent report by law firm DLA Piper that was commissioned in the wake of a global outcry.
The Qatari government confirmed they had received the “comprehensive” DLA Piper report into the health and safety migrant workers and its national labour laws.
It said it was studying the conclusions and proposals for action, promising to publish it in full at a later date together with its response.
At a conference in Doha on Thursday attended by senior Qatari government representatives, Amnesty International’s head of global issues, Audrey Gaughran, told them the exit-visa system was a “blatant human rights violation”.
Human rights organisations believe Qatar has reached a crunch point at which it must make a decisive move to demonstrate its commitment to reform by scrapping exit visas.
“It would be evidence of good intentions and good faith. It’s very much the low-hanging fruit in this debate. [The system] can be abolished without any impact on the profitability of commercial enterprises,” said Nicholas McGeehan, the Human Rights Watch researcher for Bahrain, Qatar, and UAE.
“We recognise that labour reform will be incremental. We see it as in Qatar’s best interests to get rid of this system.
“It would demonstrate to the business community that labour reform and the ability to run commercial enterprises are not mutually exclusive. We hope someone invests some political capital in this and abolishes it.”
The minister of labour and social affairs, Abdullah Saleh Mubarak Al Khulaifi, told the Peninsula newspaper his ministry was making “every effort” to tackle all laws that relate to workers’ issues.
He reportedly announced a new system whereby workers would have to be paid by bank transfers, which can be monitored, instead of by cash, which is open to abuse.
“Our [Islamic] religion has ordered us to treat workers in a humane way, and not to task them with unbearable jobs most importantly, to pay them,” Khulaifi said. “We hope that the wage protection system will achieve its aims.”
James Lynch, Amnesty’s lead researcher for the Middle East, said after speaking at Thursday’s conference that the Qataris were engaging with the complex issue but Amnesty now wanted to see concrete signs of progress.