In the first of a two-part focus on Qatar, Building reveals how, in the light of reports of abuse, huge efforts are being made to improve standards for migrant workers. But as Iain Withers discovered when he visited the country’s labour camps, there’s still a long way to go

Controversy has dogged Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup ever since it was awarded the tournament five-and-a-half years ago. Not only was the country’s bid for the 2022 tournament a focus of the wider Fifa corruption scandal, but also intense scrutiny has fallen on workers’ welfare within Qatar’s booming construction sector. Journalists and human rights groups have brought reports of construction workers suffering and even dying on building projects in the country.

Campaign group Amnesty International’s most recent report, published in March, claimed there was systematic abuse on a World Cup project, the revamp and extension of Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium [see overleaf]. Meanwhile, the Guardian published a report last month alleging abuses to subcontracted workers on jobs part-run by UK contractors Interserve and Balfour Beatty, prompting the two firms to launch investigations into the claims and pledge to up their efforts to enforce welfare standards.

What is perhaps under-reported is that the World Cup organisers, Qatari clients, and local and international suppliers alike are taking huge strides to improve workers’ welfare. Modern, spacious accommodation with good amenities is springing up for thousands of workers across the country. World Cup organiser the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, and client bodies like the Qatar Foundation, have also introduced strict welfare charters that set out minimum standards and ban abusive practices, and made compliance with these charters mandatory as part of suppliers’ contracts.

But speaking to Building, professionals working in Qatar admit the country has some distance still to travel to ensure construction workers are not abused, particularly lower down the supply chain where scrutiny is less intense and enforcement more difficult.

Over the last 18 months, I have visited Qatar twice, building up a picture of how workers are treated. So what’s really going on on site?

A huge challenge

On my first visit to Qatar in October 2014, I visited labour camps and spoke to migrant workers to get a glimpse of life for construction workers in the country [see overleaf]. On my most recent visit last month I spoke to firms operating in the country to get their take on the challenge and to find out what steps are being taken to improve conditions.

The view from the ground is that conditions are improving but that the scale of the problem is huge and will take time to address. But that is time Qatar doesn’t appear to have. There is no mistaking this is a crucial time for Qatar – its construction sector is expected to ramp up over the next two years to start delivering the bulk of the World Cup buildings and related infrastructure work. The workforce on tournament projects alone is expected to rise to around 36,000 by the middle of 2017. And that has fuelled intense focus on the region by rights campaigners.

I have seen things here that I’ve never seen in my life. I have seen accommodation and welfare standards that should not be permitted

Professional working in Qatar

Amnesty has been documenting alleged systemic abuse of construction workers in Qatar for three years. While its reports acknowledge some clients have introduced stringent worker welfare standards, it remains concerned about worker conditions, particularly at the level of the labour-only subcontractors that provide much of the workforce for Qatar’s construction sites. Amnesty claims worker abuse is still rife, including substandard and overcrowded accommodation, abuse of the “kafala” sponsorship visa system to deny migrant workers the right to change jobs or leave the country, delayed payment of salaries, deception by recruitment firms that charge workers up to $4,300 (£2,968) to secure a job, retention of passports and failure to provide or renew residence permits. Some of the accounts of workers Amnesty interviewed on the Khalifa International Stadium project – and the response of the Supreme Committee to the group’s findings – are covered in the box below.

While modern accommodation is being built across Qatar, professionals working in the country – who declined to be named, citing Qatari client sensitivity – say you do not have to drive far into the desert in any direction from Doha to find shanty camps used by unscrupulous contractors. “There are pockets of horrendous practices,” says one. “I have seen things here that I’ve never seen in my life […] I have seen accommodation and welfare standards that should not be permitted, shocking conditions.” Most professionals working in Qatar believe that worker abuses are more likely to happen on smaller or mid-size projects developed by private clients who place less emphasis on welfare standards. Major clients such as the World Cup’s Supreme Committee – so the argument goes – have stringent welfare standards and an acute awareness of the intense scrutiny they’re under to get workers’ welfare right.

But a source close to the contractor bidding process for World Cup stadiums alleges the Supreme Committee’s cut-throat approach to costs threatens to undermine its stated welfare ambitions. “[The Supreme Committee] still procures on lowest cost,” this source claims. “They get 10 prices in [from contractors], then they’ll pick the bottom four and ask these for their best and final price. Then if you come up with any ideas they’ll share them with the other three. Until people drop out. Normally speaking you’d submit your best price at the outset. So nine out of 10 contractors will cut corners [to win].”

The source alleges this approach forces contractors to contemplate cutting welfare standards. The source claims the “bulk of the price” and “main variable” on jobs in Qatar is labour costs, particularly as materials are frequently specified by the client. “They squeeze and squeeze on price and the consequences are far more dramatic than people think. If you squeeze that price, something’s got to go. The contractor has to cover the cost of PPE (safety gear), accommodation, three meals a day, medical cover, a visa, flights back home once every two years. But in the final negotiations you may end up cutting the flights, cutting the meals, or the quality of the food, or saying ‘I’ll go stick him in some slum area’. That’s where some contractors will cut corners. [The Supreme Committee’s] procurement practices are favouring some unscrupulous contractors, although I don’t think they see it like that.” The source puts the Supreme Committee’s allegedly aggressive tendering down to inexperience, rather than conscious neglect.

Most professionals acknowledge there is a tension in Qatar between clients’ tendency to ruthlessly pursue lowest cost and delivering good welfare standards. One market source argues Qatari clients’ aggressive approach on cost “could well” impact on welfare standards and ironically also may prove more costly in the long run. This source points to Doha’s experience delivering the impressive – but four years late – Hamad International Airport: “it’s a prime example – they had to bring in other contractors to rectify the mistakes. I keep hoping they’ll learn lessons from these incidents. If you pay cheap you get cheap and in the long run it actually ends up more expensive.”

Other professionals familiar with the World Cup stadiums bidding process disagreed with our critical source: “Lowest cost has always been a big driver in a less mature construction industry […] Yes, it costs to maintain standards, but the Supreme Committee is very aware of that and deliberately put these standards in place. They know the scrutiny will be on them and that they’ve got to [get welfare] right.”

The Supreme Committee told Building: “The SC is committed to protecting the health, safety and well-being of the workers building the stadiums for the 2022 Fifa World Cup. We will never compromise this based on budgets.

“All contractors tendering for an SC project are screened for compliance with the SC’s Workers’ Welfare Standards (WWS) before their technical and commercial proposals are even considered.

“To date, 120 inspections have been conducted as part of the SC’s Workers’ Welfare tender inspection audit process. Twenty-four companies failed to meet the SC’s Workers’ Welfare requirements and were disqualified from the tender process. Inspections do not stop at the project tendering stage, however, and contractors who are appointed to work on World Cup projects are subject to ad-hoc inspections against our WWS for the duration of their contracts.”

Alleged abuses on a World Cup project

Amnesty International spoke to 132 construction workers on the revamp and extension of Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium (above). Amnesty claims it uncovered instances of abuse with all the workers it interviewed, who almost all worked for labour-only subcontractors. Here are some of their accounts (all worker names were changed by Amnesty).

  • Deepak, a Nepalese metal worker, told Amnesty: “My life here is like a prison. The work is difficult, we worked for many hours in the hot sun. When I first complained about my situation, soon after arriving in Qatar, the manager said, ‘if you complain you can but there will be consequences. If you want to stay in Qatar be quiet and keep working’. Now I am forced to stay in Qatar and continue working.”
  • Manish, a Nepalese metal worker, describes how he was not allowed to travel back to Nepal after massive earthquakes in his home country in April and May last year: “For days I did not hear anything from my brother and his family. My mother lives with him so I became too anxious and could not work properly. [My manager] just said [travelling home] is not possible and left the room. When I followed him outside he got angry and said, ‘do not mention this again. You cannot leave for two years [when his contract ends]’.”
  • Alok, an Indian scaffolder, says he wanted to return to India for personal reasons, but was prevented from doing so: “When I went to the office the manager screamed at me saying ‘keep working or you will never leave’. What more can I do now, I cannot leave here because the police will take me away [as an absconded worker] and only my manager can send me home.”
  • Prem, a Nepalese metal worker, describes how repeated delays to payment of his salary left him unable to keep up with loan and rental repayments and so his family back in Nepal lost their home: “My family is now homeless and two of my younger children have been taken out of school. My parents had to shift to my brother’s house in our village, but it is far and there are no facilities there. Every day I am in tension, I cannot sleep at night. This is a torture for me.”
  • Khim, a Nepalese metal worker, said: “It took me nearly 10 months to pay off my recruitment fee, most of my salary. But I need the money, this is the fate of a poor man.”

World Cup organiser the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy responded to Amnesty’s report by saying it was “committed to ensuring the health, safety and well-being of every worker”. The committee said the conditions identified by Amnesty were “not representative” of the whole workforce on the project and many of the issues raised by Amnesty had been addressed by June 2015, after the bulk of Amnesty’s research had taken place. In addition, it said two of the labour subcontractors Amnesty identified were banned from World Cup projects, while a separate subcontractor was banned from subsequent World Cup projects – all the bans are effective until the firms can demonstrate compliance with the Supreme Committee’s Workers’ Welfare Standards.

The long road to improvement

For all the problems, there is no denying the Qatari government and major clients alike have responded with some positive actions in the face of intense international scrutiny. The Supreme Committee launched its workers’ welfare charter in February 2014 – a 50-page document setting out detailed standards on payment of wages, accommodation and welfare – which all its suppliers are contractually obliged to abide by. Meanwhile, a Qatari law came into force last November mandating that all workers are paid through direct bank transfers to try to clamp down on late and non-payment of wages. Separately, the government has hired nearly 300 housing inspectors to inspect worker accommodation, with a further 100 planned by the end of this year.

The Qatar government has even tried to reform its much-maligned sponsorship system, commonly referred to as “kafala”. A law passed last autumn, which comes into force this November, introduces an appeal system for workers refused exit permits and also enables expats who finish fixed contracts to take up new jobs without requiring their employer’s permission. But the law has been roundly criticised by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for not going far enough. They argue the kafala system should simply be abolished, and that the planned appeal system simply introduces another barrier for migrant workers wanting to leave the country. One market source agrees axing kafala would be desirable, but says the main reason it is unlikely to happen is that it would likely drive up wages.

There’s a lot more focus on workers’ welfare and everyone’s involved. But we can’t go from where we are to the best possible way straight away. It takes time

Consultant in Qatar

“If we leave kafala there will be competition for who will pay the most,” the source says. “That’s what’s going to happen. Once it’s permissible for people to move, workers will move for [as little as] 10 riyals (£1.50). It will cost companies.”

A Dubai-based professional says Qatar lags behind some of its Gulf neighbours in terms of opening up its visa system. The UAE has already abolished exit permits, while Saudi Arabia only last month announced plans to introduce a more liberal visa system similar to the green card in the US. Professional expats in Qatar are subject to the same stringent kafala rules as labourers. “All employers would prefer much easier rules when it comes to entry and exit in Qatar,” this source says, adding that UAE clients are also ahead of their Qatari counterparts in terms of welfare standards. “There are commercial incentives in Dubai. The crown prince there gives priority to firms that comply with a welfare rating system. If you don’t comply, you can’t bid for public projects.”

A number of professionals Building spoke to had suggestions for how Qatar could further improve workers’ welfare. One source said the government should simply set a minimum accommodation standard and outlaw all sub-standard camps. “You wouldn’t enter a competition with a wooden leg,” this source says. “If you outlawed these dodgy firms, everyone would then adapt and price jobs on a level playing field.” The current emphasis on auditing accommodation by the government, clients and tier one suppliers alike may not actually solve the problem, this source warns: “Some labour subcontractors may have just one camp that looks half decent. When presented for audit they’ll show that. But then they could easily shift workers to sub-standard accommodation. If you’ve got 1,000 workers on a construction site, do you follow everyone back to where they live? How do you police it? It’s always going to be open to abuse.”

Yet all the professionals Building spoke to said worker welfare standards were improving. Indeed, many expressed frustration at what they deemed as the unfair kicking Qatar gets around the world for its welfare standards, particularly in the UK. “There’s an appetite to improve workers’ welfare among government clients and professional clients. You hear about it all the time and I’ve seen first hand the efforts being made,” says one consultant. “From a Western perspective there’s a huge gap in the standards, but you have to have a sense of reality. You can’t write a report and six months down the line everything will be fine.” Another concurs: “There’s a lot more focus on workers’ welfare and everyone’s involved. But we can’t go from where we are to the best possible way straight away, it takes time.”

The problem for Qatar is that it doesn’t have the luxury of time. It needs to start ramping up construction to deliver the stadiums and infrastructure needed for the 2022 World Cup. Even for a country as ambitious and fast-moving as Qatar, delivering a World Cup while simultaneously raising workers’ welfare standards to stave off the spectre of an unacceptable human cost is going to be its toughest challenge yet.

Behind the scenes: Qatar’s hidden labour camps

The Industrial Zone is home to hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers working in Qatar’s booming construction sector. Few journalists have visited it – it’s actually hidden from view by a long wall running the length of the zone. It is reached via a slip road, throwing you into a hubbub of traffic, with construction vehicles jostling for space on unmade roads with lorries full of aggregates and buses and cars full of labourers. The first few blocks are mostly shabby shops for the labourers and vehicle depots.

The Industrial Zone is not only home to construction labourers. It is also full of bulky aggregates factories producing materials such as concrete, as well as materials suppliers and machinery depots.

Workers go about their business grimly, while broken down cranes and oil tankers litter the roadsides. The bustle of industry, coupled with the traffic, makes the air thick with dust and it gets worse the further in you go. After a few blocks you see the first labour camps. They are almost without exception dilapidated and cramped. One worker told me – through our taxi driver, who translated – that he was living in a small room shared with seven other people.

Some do not have plumbing, I was told, and while most appear to sport air-conditioning units, they’re knackered and not up to the job of cooling cramped living quarters.

Densely populated blocks are either walled off from the road, built a few metres apart or backed up against aggregates factories or depots.

There are some indications that things could improve – a new labour city for 80,000 workers is being built in one part of the zone. But signs of attrition are everywhere and it’s a world away from the glittering skyscrapers of Doha’s West Bay financial district – which of course was built by the same labourers and those who were there before them.

Iain Withers witnessed the conditions on a trip to Qatar in October 2014