Al Merri, chairman of National Commission for Human Rights (centre), with Nepalese officials at a press conference in Doha on the situation of Nepalese workers in the Gulf state on Monday. Image Credit: AFP

Doha: Qatar has promised to crack down on private building companies who exploit migrant workers, following a Guardian investigation that revealed alarming numbers of labourers are dying in the building boom prior to the 2022 World Cup.

Qatari labour minister Saleh Al Khulaifi said the Gulf state would recruit more inspectors to mount raids and checks on companies to ensure they comply with labour laws and hire more interpreters to speed up the treatment of complaints from foreign workers.

The move, announced on Monday, is the clearest admission yet from a senior official of serious problems in Qatar’s handling of its 1.2 million migrant labourers. It follows warnings that unless Qatar’s punishing labour system is changed, at least 4,000 workers could die before a ball is kicked at the World Cup.

Al Khulaifi said Qatar took allegations of maltreatment very seriously, and told reporters: “We will not hesitate to take necessary action to protect the rights of [the] expatriate workforce.”

His remarks followed a review that pointed blame at contracting companies who recruit migrant workers from across south Asia to toil on a huge range of building projects as the gas-rich kingdom ploughs more than $20 billion (Dh73.45 billion) a year into new infrastructure.

The boom will see at least $100 billion spent on up to nine football stadiums, a new airport complete with a separate terminal for the Emir, a highway to Bahrain, a railway and metro network and 29 new hotels. One of the biggest projects is an entire new city, Lusail, which is scheduled to host the World Cup final.

From June 4 to August 8 this year, 44 Nepalese workers died, about half from heart failure or accidents.

Workers have described being forced to work in 50 degrees Celsius heat without a supply of drinking water by employers who withhold salaries for several months and retain passports to prevent workers from leaving the country. Endemic sickness and hunger in overcrowded and insanitary quarters has been reported.

The Peninsula newspaper reported: “The ministry takes the issues of labourers very seriously. The inspection of contracting companies is going on to check how they are dealing with their workers. Companies are under scrutiny to make them comply with the provisions of the labour law regarding health, safety, accommodation and salaries, among others.”

‘Reports false’

But an official employed by the Nepali government as a legal adviser for Nepali nationals told a news conference on Monday the reports of ill-treatment were false, Reuters reported.

“We deny all that is mentioned in these false reports, and ask the bodies that publish them not to use Nepali workers as a means to achieve their inappropriate targets and agendas,” Mohammad Ramadan said.

“We also stress that all Nepali workers are safe and fully respected,” Ramadan said.

Citing Nepali embassy figures, Ramadan said 276 Nepalis died in Qatar last year, of which 20 per cent were on work sites. The rest died of natural causes and in accidents not at the workplace, he said.

Ali Al Merri, chairman of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee, an official state body, told the same news conference: “The numbers published by the media differ greatly from the actual numbers.”

Fifa’s executive committee is due to meet this week in Zurich, where it will consider the impact of allegations of abuse of foreign labour in Qatar on World Cup preparations. Pressure has been growing on Fifa and Qatar to act, with FifaPro, the global alliance of professional footballers’ unions, saying last week it was deeply alarmed at the deaths of workers.

Not in full control

But there is concern that Qatar’s labour ministry may not be in full control of the pre-World Cup building programme and that the separate Qatar 2022 supreme committee is more influential. On Monday night, the response was attacked by international union leaders as “extremely weak and disappointing”.

The International Trade Union Confederation said the promised raids and checks did nothing to abolish the Qatari system which strips migrant workers of their passports, renders them powerless to complain about conditions, and traps them in Qatar, unable to leave.

“They already have labour inspectors and they have no impact,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, who has previously met the Qatari labour minister for talks in Geneva on the issue. “What is needed are laws that protect workers’ rights to join a union, bargain collectively and refuse unsafe work, and only then can inspectors do their job.

“As it stands, there are laws that give employers total control over workers so no worker will feel able to speak to a labour inspector.”

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based group which produced a June 2012 report that found “pervasive employer exploitation and abuse of workers in Qatar’s construction industry”, welcomed the move but called for prosecutions to create a deterrent effect and “end the culture of impunity”.

“This is an unprecedented acknowledgement of the problem from an official body in Qatar and I don’t think we have heard anything like this from any labour ministry in the Gulf,” said Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher for HRW.

“They have to be prepared to criminally sanction Qatari employers and they must not scapegoat non-Qatari companies at the bottom of the food chain. An increase in inspections is necessary and a step forward, but there needs to be legal reforms to end the ‘kafalah’ system, which binds workers to one employer.”

India revealed over the weekend that 41 of its nationals in Qatar died over the summer, 27 of them in August, the hottest month of the year when daytime temperatures hovered in the mid to high 40s. The Indian embassy said on its website that more than 230 nationals had died in Qatar in each of the past three years, although it did not provide a complete breakdown of the causes of death. Some died of natural causes, others in road accidents.

Guardian News & Media Ltd