Qatari and Nepalese officials in Doha have rejected reports that expatriate workers on Qatar’s 2022 World Cup projects face abuses that amount to forced labour, including withheld salaries, confiscated passports and hazardous working conditions.
The Guardian newspaper last week published the allegations, which focused on Nepalese workers, the most-represented nationality in Qatar’s 94 per cent expatriate labour force. Citing embassy figures, the British newspaper said that 44 Nepalese workers had died in Qatar between June 4 and August 8, half of them from cardiac problems and workplace accidents.
The report brought renewed scrutiny to Qatar’s plans to host the 2022 World Cup, which is at the centre of the country’s development strategy.
“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,” said Mohammad Ramadan, employed by the Nepali government as a legal adviser for its citizens in Qatar, told a news conference late on Monday.
“We also stress that all Nepali workers are safe and fully respected,” said Mr Ramadan.
“There is no slavery or forced labour in Qatar,” said Ali Al Marri, the chairman of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee, an official state body, at the same news conference. He added that the worker casualty figures published by The Guardian “differ greatly from the actual numbers”.
Qatar’s labour minister, Abdullah Saleh Al Khulaifi, also announced on Monday that his office would step up workplace inspections, hire more translators to communicate with workers, and open branch offices, the local Arabic daily Al Sharq reported.
This was not the first time labour and rights groups have raised concerns about Qatar’s expatriate labour system, but The Guardian’s report sparked a fierce debate among Qataris on social media.
“Many Qataris understand that there are issues and problems, and that there are things that need to be changed — and that this is something quite urgent for the country,” said Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in Doha.
A study published in June by the Journal of Arabian Studies, whose authors included researchers at Qatar University, also raised some concerns about enforcement of labour rules.
Ninety-per cent of workers surveyed said their employers withheld their passports, for example. Roughly one-fifth of respondents also said that they received their salaries on time only sometimes, rarely, or never. The average monthly salary reported by all expatriates was US$291 (Dh1,070) per month, but less than $100 for Nepalese workers.
“The Qatar government has refuted the allegations in The Guardian, but they also need to show that they have in place a mechanism of legal enforcement on labour issues,” said Mr Stephens. “Otherwise this is going to keep happening.”
In addition to raising rights concerns, The Guardian report also appeared to cause a rupture between Qatar and Nepal, which sends the largest number of expatriate workers to the Gulf state of any nation. Nepal recalled its ambassador from Qatar on Thursday after it emerged that she had called the country an “open jail” for Nepalis who suffer labour abuses.
Later interviewed by the Qatari daily Gulf Times, Maya Kumari Sharma said the comments were a “figment of the journalist’s imagination”.
There are 340,679 Nepalis in Qatar — the equivalent of 27 per cent of the country’s workforce — according to figures distributed at the news conference, attributed to the Nepali Embassy. Most of them work in construction.
Citing Nepali embassy figures, Mr 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.
So far this year, 151 Nepalis have died, 10 per cent of them on building sites, he said.
* With additional reporting by Reuters