Qatar: Wage Abuses by Firm in World Cup Leadup

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Doha Skyline, Qatar.

 © 2018 Šarūnas Burdulis

(Beirut) – Migrant workers at a prominent Qatari trading and construction firm have not received their salaries for up to five months, Human Rights Watch said today. Workers at the Bin Omran Trading and Contracting (BOTC) company, which has multiple ongoing projects related to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, have made numerous formal complaints to Qatari authorities without effect.

FIFA should immediately set up a system to investigate abuses against migrant workers in Qatar who are making the World Cup possible and provide compensation to workers who have experienced wage delays or theft. 

“With only nine months to go until the 2022 FIFA World Cup, migrant workers who are making the games possible under difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions face repeated delayed and unpaid wages,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “While Qatari authorities invest in major public relations efforts to draw attention to labor reforms, they rarely put their money where their mouths are when it comes to migrant workers’ rights.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to four BOTC employees who had not been paid for the last five months, and who have accumulated significant debt to meet their living expenses. BOTC, which describes itself as a “Class A” contracting company and a pioneer in its industry, employs a total workforce of over 6,700 according to BOTC website.

The employees interviewed said that the total size of BOTC’s workforce has declined in recent months as employees have left either because their contracts were completed or terminated or wage abuse. They said wages for the remaining workers have been delayed by two months in some cases and five months in others, in apparent violation of Qatar’s labor law, which requires employers to pay wages in full and on time. They said that the delayed wages and uncertainty has caused an enormous amount of stress as they rely on these wages to feed their families and to ensure that their children’s education is not disrupted.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed memos sent by BOTC management to employees asking them to keep working, despite the delayed and unpaid salaries, or to face further wage deductions. Under the International Labour Organization’s Forced Labour Convention No. 29, work is considered forced or compulsory labor when workers are forced to work under threat of any penalty, which can include withholding and nonpayment of wages. Two employees said that in response to the unpaid wages, since early February, staff at their sites have stopped doing any real work, despite continuing to show up at their worksites to mark their attendance. 

These abuses persist despite several reforms that Qatar has introduced since 2015, which the government said would improve wage protection for migrant workers. The government’s Wage Protection System (WPS), designed to ensure that workers receive their salaries through direct bank transfer by the seventh day of every month, allows the government to monitor wage payments and to impose sanctions on employers for noncompliance. The Worker’s Support and Insurance Fund, which became fully operational in 2020, was established specifically to ensure that workers are paid unclaimed wages when companies fail to pay or go out of business. 

But the unpaid wages at BOTC and other companies show how vulnerable workers continue to fall through the cracks. As previous Human Rights Watch research has documented, the WPS is better described as a wage monitoring system with significant gaps in its oversight capacity. Similarly, with the Worker’s Support and Insurance Fund, an Amnesty International report found that the decision-making process is opaque and it is unclear how or when authorities utilize the fund to benefit struggling workers. Reforms to protect wages mean little for migrant workers if employers can withhold, delay, and deduct from their wages repeatedly and for extended periods without any real consequence.

On February 8, Human Rights Watch wrote to Qatari authorities informing them that some workers from BOTC have not been paid for up to five months and others for over two months and seeking a response, but they have not responded. BOTC employees also said they had  lodged complaints about their delayed wages to the Labor Ministry, the Labor Court, the Qatari police, and the National Human Rights Commission in February, so far without effect. They said that the Qatari police assured them that they would be paid by the end of February. However, a BOTC employee told Human Rights Watch that as of March 3, they had failed to meet this promise and they were still not paid.

The employees interviewed said that hundreds of the company’s former employees who are either working for other companies now or have moved back to their home countries say they have outstanding wages and are waiting for their final settlement.

The company’s website, says that its ongoing projects include the Al-Bayt Stadium in al-Khor, which will host World Cup matches, the roads surrounding the stadium, and the New Orbital Highway project, which will connect Doha’s downtown areas to several stadiums, including in al-Rayyan, al-Khor, and Lusail. The website says that three of the largest ongoing projects are worth a staggering 1.4 billion QAR (384 million USD), 699.7 million QAR (192 million USD), and 688.9 million QAR (189 million USD) respectively.

Human Rights Watch had written to BOTC and Qatari authorities on February 8, 2020, about similar reports of delayed and unpaid wages, without receiving a response. One employee who described facing delayed wages repeatedly over the years said:

Between 2018 and 2020, our salaries were delayed by two to five months. Every month they used to send us salary memos saying payments will be on time from the following month but those were false assurances. There wasn’t a single month when we were paid on time, it was always a delayed payment.

Ongoing Human Rights Watch research reveals that wage abuse remains a systemic failure by many employers in Qatar. Migrant workers have been essential in preparing Qatar to host over 1.2 million visitors during the games and World Cup tickets will cost a minimum of US$302 on opening day on November 21 and $1,607 for the December 18 final game. Both prices are higher than Qatar’s monthly minimum wage, which was set at $275 in March 2021.

In August 2020, Human Rights Watch published a 78-page report, “‘How Can We Work Without Wages?’: Salary Abuses Facing Migrant Workers Ahead of Qatar’s FIFA World Cup 2022,” which documented how direct employers and labor supply companies in Qatar frequently delay, withhold, or arbitrarily deduct workers’ wages. Companies often withhold contractually guaranteed overtime payments and end-of-service benefits, and they regularly violate their contracts with migrant workers with impunity. In the worst cases, workers said that employers simply stopped paying their wages, and they often struggled to buy food. 

Migrant workers are banned under Qatari law from joining unions.

In December 2020, Human Rights Watch also reported similar cases in which salaries for  hundreds of workers from two companies – Imperial Trading and Construction Company (ITCC) and Lalibela Cleaning and Services – went unpaid for months even though authorities were repeatedly been informed of these abuses.

In addition to Qatari authorities, FIFA, which selected Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, also has responsibilities for providing a remedy for the loss of migrant workers’ lives and livelihoods under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“The BOTC case demonstrates that Qatar’s measures to end wage abuse are failing to protect migrant workers, leaving companies to continue their violations of labor and human rights in impunity,” Page said.

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