FIFA denies World Cup connection to unpaid workers in Qatar

FIFA has rejected claims by Amnesty International that migrant workers building World Cup stadiums in Qatar had not been paid.

Football’s governing body was responding to an Amnesty report on 78 men working for a company called Mercury MENA in Lusail, who have not been paid since February 2016.

The stranded workers from Nepal, India and the Philippines were each owed an average of $2,000, which for some was the equivalent of several months’ wages, Amnesty said.

Mercury MENA, meanwhile, has stopped operating in the Gulf.

FIFA said the human rights charity had been "misleading" when it claimed the 78 Mercury MENA workers had been involved on projects relating to the 2022 tournament.

"We have no reason to believe the reported violations of workers’ rights are in fact linked to FIFA and the 2022 World Cup," said the FIFA spokesman. "We regret Amnesty chose to frame its statement in such a misleading manner."

But according to Amnesty, Mercury MENA did work on an infrastructure project which, although not directly a World Cup structure, was part of the showpiece city, Lusail, where the opening and final matches will be played in 2022.

There are currently 25,000 workers involved in the construction of eight stadiums for the FIFA event, including the one in Lusail City.

This compares with 1.8 million who are employed across the tiny Gulf state in all types of construction work.

They include those building Lusail itself, a newly constructed city on the edge of Doha where the Mercury MENA workers were employed.

Ever since it won the right to host the World Cup in 2010 Qatar – and FIFA – have been under the international spotlight over the issue of workers’ rights, which the tiny Gulf state is trying to address through a programme of reforms.

At the root of the abuse is the "kafala" system which affects more than 20 million people across the Gulf region.

Under this type of sponsored labour workers, mainly from South Asia, can be exploited by unscrupulous bosses who withhold wages as well as passports.

Without the necessary paperwork, employees are unable to leave the country and can find themselves trapped in a modern form of slavery.

Many of the men in the latest Amnesty report had taken out big loans to get a job in Qatar in the first place, and were now left without the earnings to repay the money, forcing families at home to sell land or take children out of school.

One worker, Ernesto, a piping foremen from the Philippines, told Amnesty he was in greater debt after working in Qatar for two years than he had been before he arrived in the country.

The Qatar government is now taking legal action against Mercury MENA – which no longer operates in Doha after experiencing "cashflow problems" – because of what happened.

Amnesty claims the company took advantage of the kafala system, which leaves workers unable to claim unpaid wages if they walk away from their jobs, so they return home empty-handed.

Last year Qatar pledged to work with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on a wholesale reform of kafala and its labour laws.

Earlier this month it abolished exit permits that employers used to stop workers leaving the country.

Further changes allowing workers to change jobs without a "non-objection certificate" from their employer are in the pipeline.

Yesterday Qatar responded to the Amnesty report by saying such abuses are "not tolerated" in its country and asking for time to fix the problem.

"There is always more work to be done on this matter, and we endeavour to be the regional leader on the matter," it said.

The statement went on: "In the years since we started working collaboratively with the ILO, and organisations including Amnesty, we have aggressively transformed our labour system.

"Reforms and advances include: abolition of exit permits, introduction of comprehensive wage protection system, and additional policies that protect guest workers form their recruitment to their return."

The ILO said it would "continue to work with the government of Qatar as well as representatives of employers, global unions and other partners to ensure that the goals of the cooperation programme are met."

Image: Construction in Lusail, Qatar’s World Cup showpiece city, in December 2016 (Preacher lad/Wikimedia Commons)

  • Freelance journalist Anthony Harwood is former foreign editor of the Daily Mail, and former Head of News at the Daily Mirror.

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