The Ordeal of Construction Workers in Qatar

By Margaux Baltus, Tanishk Saha, Gregor Thompson, Amy Thorpe, and Liuting Wang

© Sofia Alvarez Jurado

Before arriving in Qatar in 2012, Arun* had never had any major health problems. Well-trained in cement work, masonry, and carpentry, he worked in construction in his home country, India. The average monthly wages in India were low — about 155 euros, or half of what Arun imagined he could earn when he heard about several companies recruiting workers for construction sites in Qatar.

Qatar launched its National Vision 2030 plan back in 2008 with the objective “to transform Qatar into an advanced society capable of achieving sustainable development.”

To reach these ends, the small Gulf country of 3 million inhabitants needed help, and the 2010 awarding of the 2022 Football World Cup reinforced the necessity to build infrastructure — seven stadiums would have to rise from the ground, along with metro lines to bring spectators in from their hotels.

In preparation for his job, a recruitment agency made Arun pass several tests to find out if he could carry heavy loads. Hired in 2012 to work on a tramway line in Lusail (Qatar), he left to work for about three years in the Arabian Peninsula.

The work was very physical, and the heat was oppressive: Arun worked up to 77 hours a week, in temperatures ranging between 40 and 50°C, according to lawsuit documents seen by the Heat Trap Project.

Arun began to experience stomach pain and vomiting. On account of a lengthy approval process by his company, when he fell ill, Arun claims he could not leave the country for two weeks. “I was scared that I couldn’t be cured. I wanted to return to India as soon as possible: I was afraid of dying in Qatar,” he wrote in his testimony. 

Arun’s testimony, along with those of ten other workers, was collected by the French NGO Sherpa. With the committee against modern slavery (CCEM), the workers filed a complaint against QDVC (Qatar Diar Vinci Construction), the Qatari subsidiary of Vinci. The French company controls 49% (a minority share) of QDVC to be able to work in the country. QDVC has built the Lusail construction sites, the aerial metro in Doha, as well as other major infrastructural projects.

From November 20 to December 18, 2022, thirty-two teams competed in facilities built from scratch with the help of close to two million migrant workers (or around 90% of the Qatari labor force), mostly from South Asia. The competition was moved to winter, to avoid players overheating. But not the workers.

Insufficient protections against heat stress

Since 2012, several NGOs have expressed concern about the working conditions of migrant workers in Qatar. Among their main worries is the intense heat. Arun is one of the 21% of construction workers in Qatar who suffered heat-related illnesses or heart problems due to his work in temperatures approaching 50°C. At the time, their protections were minimal, with a mandatory work break from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the summer months being one of the few State-implemented defenses against heat.

This heat is sometimes fatal. Amnesty International estimates that of the thousands of migrant worker deaths in Qatar over the past decade, “at least hundreds are likely to have been related to working in the extreme heat.”

Despite this, there is little mention of heat in the death certificates of workers. 

For Barrak Alahmad, who did his PhD on heat-related excess mortality, particularly in the Near and Middle East, heat stress is often the underlying cause of deaths officially attributed to heart attacks, kidney failure, and ‘natural causes.’ 

“If you look at all the death certificates in the world and try to count those that have heat as a reason for death, there will be very few,” Alahmad said. “That’s rarely the doctors’ diagnosis; they diagnose the consequences.” 

For Alahmad, the protection against heat in Qatar — the now-updated ban on working between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. for workers, as well as a ban on working when wet-bulb thermometer temperatures (WBGT) exceed 32.1°C — is not enough. Heat affects the body throughout the working day, but also during rest time. 

Heat-related deaths are extremely under-evaluated, according to Alahmad. “There is a lot of work to be done by the International Classification of Diseases (ICD),” he said. “The people who write the codes need to put more categories for heat and heat-related illnesses. People need to shift the focus now towards heat as a direct cause of death.”

An environment of exploitation

Vinci claims that it is vigilant in monitoring the working conditions of its employees, and hiring subcontractors is a common practice for the technical aspects of its projects. But by delegating part of the work to other companies, the number of intermediaries multiplies.  

Nick McGeehan is the co-founder of FairSquare. With a doctorate in law, McGeehan specializes in worker protection, particularly in the fight against heat-related deaths. He says the more outsourcing there is, the more difficult it becomes to monitor employees’ working conditions. “You need a tremendous amount of due diligence on your labor supply chain in the Gulf if you want to make sure that people at the bottom of that chain are not abused,” he explained. “[For] the companies with lower standards of how they treat their workers, those standards tend to slip further down the chain you go.”

The Sherpa documents claim that Vinci’s managers were aware of and responsible for the situation of their employees in Qatar — even those hired by subcontractors. But the NGO asserts that Vinci has failed to ensure the safety of their workers, accusing the company of “reduction to servitude, human trafficking, work incompatible with human dignity, deliberate endangerment, involuntary injury, and receiving stolen goods.”

In response to Heat Trap Project’s questions, a Vinci representative working on social innovation and human rights said that the allegations leveled at Vinci are unsubstantiated, and that they can counter many of the former workers’ testimonies. Vinci sued Sherpa for defamation in 2015, after the NGO filed its first complaint. “The purpose of this procedure [was] for QDVC to prove and to show that the health and safety conditions have been safe and decent,” said the representative. “We have never had a single case of [heat stroke nor any heat-related deaths] on our sites.”

The representative said Vinci “is above the market,” compared to its competitors — that they are doing their utmost to improve the working and living conditions of foreign laborers in Qatar under the local system. “QDVC has taken voluntary measures to adapt to the Qatar Foundation standards on site since 2013.” 

For an extended period of Vinci’s operations in Qatar, many of the workers from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Philippines, comprising the majority of QDVC’s employees, were wholly dependent on the company. Their passports were ‘safe-kept’ on arrival and their accommodation was provided to them, as were their meals.

This is a lingering consequence of the kafala system, which emerged in Qatar in the early 20th century to regulate the treatment of foreign workers. However, critics have denounced the system for the disproportionate amount of power companies hold compared to the workers the government permits them to sponsor. Due to this imbalance, practices like forced labor, movement restrictions, and debt bondage became frequent occurrences.

The kafala system is still practiced by the majority of employers, despite being abolished by the government in 2016. Under Qatari criminal law, bringing a person considered a slave into or out of the country can be punished by a maximum sentence of 7 years in prison.

“It is the perceived expendability of the workforce that makes them vulnerable. And vulnerability is what makes it possible to get workers to work when they shouldn’t — making them work harder, making them work longer,” said Nick McGeehan from FairSquare.

In a written response to a request for comment, the Communications Office of the Qatari government said, “There has been a lot of misunderstanding about Qatar’s progress to date… The reality is that Qatar leads the region in labor rights, and all foreign residents are an integral part of our society.”

The response cited the Qatari government’s collaborations with global partners, such as the International Labour Organization, as a sign of Qatar’s commitment to workers’ rights. It also pointed out that multiple labor reforms have been enacted in recent years.

“We have always recognized that, like any other country, there is still work to be done,” their statement continued. “Systemic change does not happen overnight and changing the behavior of individual companies takes time. But Qatar is committed to holding unscrupulous employers to account, and we deny any allegations to the contrary.”

Arun was able to return to India for surgery following his medical scare. The situation for workers has reportedly improved, since Arun’s testimony in 2014, according to the documents viewed by Heat Trap Project. This progress followed the first complaint filed by Sherpa against Vinci in 2016, which was later dismissed. 

While the 2022 World Cup has induced greater media coverage on these issues, questions of safety and compliance with standards on heat stress are still being raised. 

Some 120 French companies are active in Qatar, undertaking multiple projects. According to the website of the French Ministry of the Economy and Finance, these projects help to “highlight French expertise in the fields of urban transport, whether in engineering (Egis, Systra, Arep), construction (Vinci), the supply of rolling stock (Alstom), signaling (Thales) or the operation of assets.”

Despite recent advances in the treatment of Qatar’s migrant workers, many hold reservations about whether progress will continue after the tournament.

“The issue of migrant workers is not only about the World Cup. It was long before that. It is going to be long after that,” said Barrak Alahmad. “I hope this World Cup brings long-lasting change.”

*Arun’s name has been changed

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