Qatar: the building site from hell | Editorial

What really shocks is the thought that the whole sordid system of debt bondage and forced labour is legal

Pete Pattisson's investigation into the plight of Nepalese migrant labourers in Qatar shines an unremitting light on truly appalling scenes of exploitation and abuse that amount to modern-day slavery. That workers should be so abused in preparation for the Gulf state's 2022 World Cup is sad, yet comes as no surprise. That they are dying at a rate of almost one a day – more than half of them from heart attacks, heart failure and workplace accidents – in the construction binge, in temperatures of up to 50C, is terrible. But what really shocks is the thought that the whole sordid system of debt bondage and forced labour is legal.

Under the kafala sponsorship system which requires all unskilled labourers to have a sponsor, migrant workers are unable to enter the country, leave it or change jobs without their company's permission. The Nepalese working at Lusail City are double-locked into bondage. Unable to pay the debts to the middlemen who recruited them, they are forced to work without pay. But once in Qatar, their fate is sealed by subcontractors who confiscate their passports, refuse to issue them with ID cards, and hold back their pay for months to stop them fleeing. If they do, they are reduced to the status of illegal aliens, sheltering in their embassy, demanding protection.

Qatar is not the only outpost of Dante's Inferno, try as it might to hide behind its image of a glitzy, hyper-wealthy, postmodern, liberal state. Forced labour is a recurrent issue in the world of globalised business: 21m people across the globe toil in these conditions. Where you have no rule of law, institutional discrimination and a vulnerable workforce, you have modern-day slavery. While there are UN principles – those developed by the special rapporteur John Ruggie are as good as any – there is no international law holding companies responsible for labour conditions offered by their subcontractors. The principle of extraterritorial legislation is contained in the UK's Bribery Act, but there is a hesitancy about applying to the same rules to slavery. Theresa May's promise to introduce a modern slavery bill tightening the laws on human trafficking in the current session of parliament is welcome. So is the creation of a commissioner to ensure that government and law enforcement agencies work together. But no British company working abroad that finds its supply chain polluted by forced labour will be subject to any legal sanction. The same presumably goes for our footballers.

Britain has a long history of fighting slavery, but all bets are off when it comes to a government department, aid agency or company operating abroad. Why else would the UK give Uzbekistan, which forces thousands of adults and children to pick cotton, favoured trading status?



The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Qatar commits to new welfare standards for World Cup workers

Commitments on wages, accommodation and inspections will cover only Qatar 2022 stadiums, but not wider infrastructure projects

Owen Gibson, chief sports correspondent

12, Feb, 2014 @12:08 AM

Article image
Qatar World Cup 'slaves': Fifa's UK representative 'appalled and disturbed'
Vice-president Jim Boyce calls for immediate investigation into deaths of Nepalese construction workers revealed by Guardian

Owen Gibson, chief sports correspondent

26, Sep, 2013 @2:01 PM

Article image
Qatar 2022 World Cup workers 'treated like cattle', Amnesty report finds

Fresh fears raised about exploitation after Fifa president declares country 'on right track' over migrant labourers' rights

Owen Gibson, chief sports correspondent

17, Nov, 2013 @9:00 PM

Article image
Qatar World Cup: 400 Nepalese die on nation's building sites since bid won

Human-rights group monitors mounting death toll on stadium building sites. And, with Nepalese only 20% of migrant workforce, calls grow for Fifa to take decisive action, writes Jamie Doward

Jamie Doward

15, Feb, 2014 @11:21 PM

Article image
Qatar accused of dragging its feet over treatment of migrant workers
Emirate claims it is making progress in World Cup row, but Amnesty says time is running out for promised reforms

Owen Gibson

12, Nov, 2014 @12:01 AM

Article image
Revealed: migrant workers in Qatar forced to pay billions in recruitment fees
Guardian investigation finds labourers – including those on World Cup-related projects – were left with huge debts

Pete Pattisson and Pramod Acharya in Kathmandu and Muhammad Owasim Uddin Bhuyan in Dhaka

31, Mar, 2022 @11:28 AM

Article image
Qatar's PR efforts on labour scandal backfire with BBC team's detention
Expensive efforts to improve wealthy Gulf state’s image wasted as repressive instincts win out over modern communications strategy

Ian Black

18, May, 2015 @2:23 PM

Article image
Qatar World Cup: Fifa vice-president demands payment of migrant workers
UK representative 'very concerned' despite assurances from organising committee that workers' rights would be safeguarded

Robert Booth

29, Jul, 2014 @10:31 AM

Article image
Qatar under pressure over migrant labour abuse
International Trade Union Confederation says death toll could reach 600 a year unless government makes urgent reforms

Robert Booth, Owen Gibson and Pete Pattisson in Kathmandu

26, Sep, 2013 @7:33 PM

Article image
Qatar World Cup: migrants wait a year to be paid for building offices
Workers who fitted out lavish offices used by tournament organisers say they are trapped after collapse of contractor

Robert Booth, and Pete Pattisson in Doha

28, Jul, 2014 @1:22 PM