TheJournal.ie has a large feature today regarding the risk that Irish companies working on construction projects for Qatar 2022 might become implicated in forced labour. Considerable coverage has been given in the Irish and international press to human rights violations occurring in the run-up to the World Cup, particularly under the kafala labour system. This article, however, is one of the few times where Irish media have highlighted the risk of complicity by for Irish businesses in this this context (something which I have looked at before here). The lengthy piece written by Orla Ryan, is well worth a read and I have reproduced it below in full.
Concerns raised about some Irish businesses involved with Qatar World Cup
As fresh bribery allegations throw the spotlight back on Qatar, an Irish human rights lawyer has warned that the country’s ‘kafala’ labour system is leading to the exploitation of migrant workers.
IRISH COMPANIES OPERATING in Qatar have been warned that the labour system there could be seen to facilitate a form of slave labour.
Several Irish businesses are currently involved in various aspects of the 2022 World Cup build.
Human rights lawyer Orna Joyce said that while it is difficult to directly connect individual organisations to slavery, companies operating in Qatar could be linked to its corrupt employment system.
Joyce said that the driving factor of slavery in Qatar is the ‘kafala’ labour law.
She stated that once an employee comes to Qatar they are essentially “owned” by their employer due to the kafala system.
“The word ‘kafala’ in Arabic means adoption … Once a person arrives they have to be attached to an employer, but that employer has to actually be a Qatari person and so, for that reason, a lot of foreign countries will basically hire what they call a ‘sleeping agent’ – that’s someone who becomes a ‘passive employer’.”
Joyce explained that the company itself remains “legally responsible” for the worker.
“Say, for example, if that person was to get drunk or commit a crime, then their owner is actually responsible for them.”
In a report released in April, the UN called on Qatar to abolish the kafala system as its “renders migrants vulnerable to abuse and exploitation”.
The report states:
Another problematic element of the kafala system is the exit permit requirement under the Sponsorship Law: migrants can only leave the country with an exit permit issued by their sponsor.
“This requirement violates the freedom of movement guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms Racial Discrimination.
The claim that it is meant to prevent the flight of migrants after committing crimes can only apply to a few individuals and does not justify the pre-emptive punishment of thousands. It is a source of abuse and there is no valid justification for maintaining this system.
The document makes a series of recommendations for private sector companies operating in Qatar, including adhering to international human rights and labour standards, refraining from confiscating employees’ passports and ensuring that contracts signed by workers in their home countries are respected.
‘Horrific’ living conditions
Joyce said that migrant employees often live in sub-standard accommodation.
The living conditions that most people are in are absolutely horrific – you could have anything up to 15-20 people living in a tiny room. They’re expected to cook in that room as well … There have been reports of open sewers, right outside the dormitory places that they’re living in.
She remarked that some migrants are “so desperate to get work” they are duped into paying exorbitant “fake” costs to unscrupulous recruiters.
“[Recruiters] have so much power over the migrant workers they can basically tell them what they want.”
Joyce said it can take workers up to three years to pay off the initial debt they ‘owe’ to the company and “only then will they be able to start making money”.
If you’re a good employer, you can actually operate under kafala and give your employees a good standard of living and let them have a nice life.
She said that Qatar has a law where employees are supposed to have one day off a week, known as ‘family day’.
“If you’re single, you can’t go into any shopping centres, you can’t go into public spaces … As a result, on the day where they should be relaxing they aren’t actually allowed to leave where they live.”
Most migrant workers are Filipino, Nepali and Indian so they look different from local Qataris. A westerner would probably get away with it more easily because they don’t mind us as such – we’re seen to be people with money. If you were a lone guy walking around on a day off, you’ll be arrested.
Joyce noted that it is “extremely difficult” to directly link any company to such abuses because of “complicated legal structures”. However, she pointed out that the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Amendment Bill 2013 closed a loophole in the 2008 Act, meaning Irish companies can now be prosecuted for forced labour.
She added that, albeit slowly, Qatar is improving in terms of local labour laws, noting that a helpline was set up in 2011 to give employees the opportunity to air any grievances they may have about their work environment.
Despite this, she warned: ”Companies are still paying people off within that line … It’s just not working the way it should be at the moment.”
1,200 workers have died to date
In March, the International Trade Union Confederation published a report, ‘The Case Against Qatar‘, that warned 4,000 workers could die before the tournament begins in 2022.
Some 1,200 people have died since 2010, when Qatar won the right to host the World Cup.
The report notes that there were 60 worker fatalities in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, 40 before the Athens Olympics, ten before the Beijing Games and no deaths of workers before the 2012 Olympics in London.
An average of 20 Indian migrant workers died per month in in Qatar 2013, peaking at 27 in the hottest month – August. There are an estimated 1.2 million migrant workers in the country.
Last September, David Begg, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, wrote to John Delaney of the FAI urging him to ensure the right of workers in Qatar were respected in the run up to the tournament.
TheJournal.ie contacted the FAI asking if the organisation was satisfied that FIFA was doing enough to protect migrant workers. It did not respond.
Controversy has surrounded Qatar’s successful bid from the beginning.
Earlier this month, FIFA President Sepp Blatter admitted choosing the country as the location for the 2022 World Cup was a mistake.
Blatter said that the tournament would “more than likely” take place in the winter as average temperatures in Qatar top 40°C in June and July.
This week, the Sunday Times reported that Mohamed bin Hammam, the former president of the Asian Football Confederation, paid €3.6 million to senior football officials to get support for Qatar’s campaign to host the competition.
Organisers of the bid have denied the allegations but calls have been made for the competition to be withdrawn from Qatar altogether.
FIFA vice president Jim Boyce said that a switch in host should be considered if the claims are proven to be true.
Operating in Qatar
TheJournal.ie contacted a number of Irish companies that are involved in the Qatar build. KCC Architectural is the only one that responded.
The company is providing door hardware and emergency exits in some of the stadiums where the tournament will be held.
KCC began its operations in Doha in November 2011 and the group’s managing director Chris Kilpatrick said it is “only beginning out there”. KCC Middle East is co-owned by Petrobuild and KCC International, with respective shares of 51 and 49 per cent.
Kilpatrick said he has “never seen anybody mistreated or heard about any complaints on site” and noted that the contracts for their employees are all “cleared and adhered to” by Petrobuild.
He added that KCC has “never had any issue” with the kafala work system.
We have never seen anything that would jeopardise the employees.
Kilpatrick said he has visited some of the sites KCC are working on and said they were “as good as you’d get in Ireland”.
On any site I have visited I haven’t seen any issue with health and safety.
He noted that it was up to individual sites to ensure exploitation is not happening, adding that the human resources department in Petrobuild was always available if employees needed to raise an issue about their visa or work conditions.
KCC’s employees in Qatar work from 8am to 6pm five days a week, with Fridays and Saturdays off. “Friday is equal to our Sunday,” Kilpatrick explained.
Questionable human rights record
On the subject of doing business in a country with a questionable human rights record, Kilpatrick said Qatar should not be singled out in this regard.
He offered the US as a country that has “a lot to answer for” in terms of human rights violations, adding that you will find a plane full of Irish people travelling to Doha every week because “they can’t get work here”.
Kilpatrick said that most companies operating in Qatar offer their employees a month’s holiday but make them take it all in one go, while KCC allows staff to take two weeks off in the summer and two weeks off at Christmas.
The company employs six migrant workers in Qatar – four men and two women – from the Philippines, Nepal and Sri Lanka. They work in engineering, administration and transport roles and some have been to Ireland for training.
Kilpatrick is a member of the Irish Qatari Business Council – an NGO set up in January 2012 to promote business and trade between the two countries.
Upon hearing of migrant worker exploitation in Qatar, he said he raised the issue with fellow members of the council, noting that no one said they had come across problems personally.
Fostering business links
Conor Tubridy, chair of the IQBC, told TheJournal.ie: “It’s not the IQBC’s role or position to make commentary on political, religious or social issues in Qatar, or any other country.”
Joyce disagreed, saying: “By getting involved in business in Qatar, you’re automatically involved in politics.”
Once you’re working in that system, you’re paying taxes over there and, as a result, you’re supporting that system. Regardless of whether or not you’re treating your employees badly or well, by supporting that system you’re already in the wrong.
The junior minister for trade and development, Labour’s Joe Costello, met with the council in Qatar at the weekend.
In January, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and jobs minister Richard Bruton headed up a trade mission to Gulf states that resulted in contracts worth €25 million for Irish companies in Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
At the time, the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore defended Kenny for not raising human rights issues during the visit, saying such topics are discussed through outlets such as the UN Human Rights Council, not on trade missions.
Two weeks ago Fine Gael TD Pat Breen, chairman of the Oireachtas committee on foreign affairs, made a return visit to Qatar and Bahrain.
Over the course of the three-day visit, Breen met with the Prime Minister of Qatar; the CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al-Bakar; and the US Assistant Secretary of State for Economics and Business Affairs, Charles Rivkin.
The Clare TD said the purpose of the trip would “serve to strengthen the economic and trade ties of Ireland with Qatar and Bahrain”.
At his meeting with the Qatari Prime Minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser, Breen said he “stressed the need to strengthen and grow [ties between Ireland and Qatar]” and discussed “the possibilities of further trade visits in both directions”.
He noted that it would not have been suitable to raise the issue of human rights at the meeting, adding that it was “more appropriate to talk about trade and business”.
When he asked the country’s deputy foreign minister about the issue, Breen said he was told that migrant workers were “treated well”.
However, when he asked the same question to executives of Irish companies operating in Qatar, he said they told him they were aware of some employees being exploited.
Breen noted that the living conditions for migrant workers in Qatar are “not perfect”, adding: “There’s no point in saying other wise.”
The TD said most of the migrant workers in Qatar had a low level skills set and therefore a low productivity level, earning about €200-300 a month.
Breen noted that trade with Qatar pumped €141 million into the Irish economy in 2012, a 33 per cent jump from 2011.
He maintained that “things work very differently there”, but said the situation is “much better than in other Arab countries”.
Breen said “a bigger question” surrounded the fact that “we trade with China for €10 billion”, another country with a questionable human rights record.
He stated that he was “very conscious” of exploitation and it was ”something we have to monitor”, but added: “We can’t isolate ourselves either.”