Construction workers in Doha. “Ask the workers themselves what they want,” urges one contractor in Qatar (Jason Larkin/Getty)

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Portrayal of Qatar workers’ plight “much blacker” than reality, say contractors

18 June 2014 | By Rod Sweet in Qatar | 1 Comment

Contractors in Qatar have criticised media and human rights group Amnesty International for using selected cases of the mistreatment of migrant workers to paint a picture that is “much blacker” than reality.

A unique conference for international construction professionals got under way in Doha this week. Organised by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), its dominant theme was migrant workers’ rights. 

It kicked off with the signing of an agreement between the CIOB and the Qatar Foundation* pledging support for the latter’s rigorous (though voluntary) welfare standards.

Then Amnesty International took to the stage. Its representative, James Lynch, reiterated the findings of a November 2013 report that found instances of workers being paid less than they were promised, of having their pay delayed or withheld altogether and of being housed in “squalid” conditions.

Lynch said contractors routinely passed responsibility for workers’ welfare to subcontractors, who were “quite blasé” about the issue. He said that “many” workers were suicidal, and so were family members back home who faced the stigma of having a male relative working in the Gulf but not sending money.

As the day went on, however, contractors operating in Qatar began voicing resentment at the way their treatment of workers had been portrayed since the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported on the issue last year, and since the Amnesty International report. Several insisted that such portrayals were the exception, and far from the rule.

One, a senior manager at an established contractor here, told Global Construction Review that over the past 15 years he had personally overseen the importation of around 90,000 workers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Africa, and he insisted that Amnesty International and the media were making the situation appear “much blacker” than it actually was.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he took issue with some of Lynch’s points. 

Firstly, on the role and prevalence of subcontracting: he said that 75% to 80% of workers on his company’s projects – all but the most specialised skills – were directly employed, and he supervised recruitment personally, vetting the in-country agents and setting the skills and fitness testing. “I’ve been going to India for 15 years,” he said. 

Currently, just under 8,000 workers were housed in his camps, and he insisted that he was proud of the standards of accommodation. Camps, the largest of which has around 5,000 men, elect committees, chaired by the “camp boss”, to raise issues for the company’s attention. A doctor advises on menus to ensure they meet nutritional requirements. The manager said he regularly drops in unannounced to eat what the workers eat. “It’s perfectly acceptable,” he said. He was aware of only one suicide in the past 15 years and in that instance the man was employed by another company.

I put in power showers in camps and two days later they’d all been ripped out. They weren’t what the workers wanted– A senior manager operating in Qatar

Workers’ passports were kept in a safe. This, he said, was to protect them from loss or damage and to make it easier for the company to process on the workers’ behalf the high volume of paperwork required in Qatar. He insisted that operatives were given their passports on request, and were free to leave at any time. An out-of-office-hours telephone number was provided for workers to request their passport should an emergency arise back home.

Another issue is that workers often arrive heavily in debt, having been forced to pay agents in their home countries up front fees to get to Qatar. Speaking to GCR, the manager described his personal efforts to combat this practice, and how difficult it was. In recent years, owing to increasing demand, visas for Asian workers have become scarce (India has traditionally been this company’s main source of skilled workers). This prompted the company to begin looking in Kenya and Ghana for workers.  

‘Don’t pay anything’

In Ghana, the manager found a local agent, who began recruiting. When around 16 men had been offered jobs, the manager went to Ghana to meet his new workers. “I told them,” he said, “don’t pay anybody anything. We will pay for your flights, we will pay the agent’s fee, and we’ll pay for your visa.” In the end, however, only five showed up in Qatar. Quizzed by the manager, they said they’d had to pay US$2,000 to come and take up their jobs. 

The manager challenged the agent. “They played dumb,” he said. “They had sublet the recruitment to four or five different parties, who all wanted a cut. We found a new agent, but how do you stop that sort of thing? You can do everything in your capability, but there are limits. Meanwhile, $2,000 is around 10 months’ wages. That’s what these guys have to do before they make any money to send home.”

On the issue of payments withheld from workers, the manager told GCR that the root of the problem was not contractors or subcontractors holding on to cash rightly due to workers, but rather a widespread culture of non-payment among clients in Qatar, both public and private. 

“We’re owed millions,” he said. “I spend 30% of my time chasing debt. It drags on forever. There are many, many, many examples. Fortunately we have a high volume of cash flow so we can survive, and we pay workers and subcontractors on the dot, but many get into difficulties and can’t pay.”

The manager told GCR that there was a lot of unrealistic talk about standards at the moment.

“Ask the workers themselves what they want and they’ll give you what they require,” he said. “I put in power showers in camps and two days later they’d all been ripped out. They weren’t what the workers wanted. It’s not what they’re used to. Four times I put up shower curtains and each time they disappeared.”

Of Amnesty International, he said: “They were being selective, picking on extreme cases to make a point. It has given the issue a high level of media exposure, and that has got to be a good thing, but what’s really needed is better inspections to bring the ugly up to the level of good.”

(* The QF is an influential, semi-public body that sponsors research and human development initiatives. It is a construction client in its own right, commissioning educational and infrastructure schemes. It means that anyone wanting to work for the QF will be contractually obliged to meet these standards and ensure compliance all the way down the supply chain. Another major client has followed the QF’s lead: Qatar Rail, charged with delivering the Doha Metro, has also adopted its standards.)

See also this week:

Human misery to increase in Qatar without urgent change: Amnesty International

Could all workers’ camps be like this?