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US Senate FIFA inquiry probes Qatar workers' plight

Barry Meier
View of the Khalifa football stadium on January 6, 2013 in Doha, Qatar.
Nadine Rupp | Getty Images

When a law firm hired by Qatar, the site of the 2022 World Cup, issued a report last year urging reforms in the treatment of migrant construction workers there, human rights groups expected the tiny, oil-rich Persian Gulf nation to respond quickly.

But more than 15 months later, critics say, many of the report's major recommendations remain unaddressed, and thousands of foreign laborers continue to work in Qatar under conditions akin to indentured servitude. The report, by the law firm DLA Piper, had called for, among other things, eliminating the collection of exorbitant fees paid by workers to secure jobs and rules preventing them from changing jobs or leaving the country.

On Wednesday, a United States Senate subcommittee examined those issues as part of a hearing into the corruption scandal surrounding FIFA, soccer's international governing body. The panel also heard about a continuing debate over the causes of worker deaths in Qatar.

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FIFA's "culture of corruption is turning a blind eye to significant human rights violations and the tragic loss of lives," said Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas and chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security.

As the FIFA controversy grows, major American construction companies working in Qatar and in other Gulf nations are also being drawn into the debate about labor practices in the region.

Sunjeev Bery, an official of Amnesty International who testified at the hearing, said that construction firms had an obligation to address worker mistreatment. "Companies and employers have a responsibility to prevent abuses even if they do not directly contribute to them," Mr. Bery said.

Several companies based in the United States, such as CH2M, Aecom and Bechtel, are involved in either building World Cup-related sites in Qatar or other major projects in Gulf states, like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, that rely heavily on migrant laborers. In Qatar, migrant workers from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines account for nearly all of the country's labor force.

While these laborers are not directly employed by the American companies, thousands of them work on projects the companies manage or oversee. As a result, American construction companies face labor issues similar to the ones confronting United States clothing or technology businesses that profit from cheap labor abroad, said Michael Pullen, a lawyer formerly with DLA Piper who headed the firm's inquiry in Qatar.

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"There is a lot more they could do to make sure that their subcontractors comply with international standards," said Mr. Pullen, who now works for a law firm in London.

Some companies have sought to respond to the criticism. CH2M, the overall project manager for the planned World Cup stadium, recently introduced a set of global worker welfare policies. The company, which is headquartered in Englewood, Colo., has also met over the last year with human rights groups and others seeking to reform labor practices in the Gulf.

CH2M declined to make executives available to comment, but a company spokesman, John Corsi, said it was using its "influence to advance the welfare of workers in the construction sector and applying international best practices to projects around the world." Aecom and Bechtel said in statements that they supported the highest worker safety standards wherever they operate.

Jill Wells, an official of Engineers Against Poverty, an advocacy group in England, described the guidelines issued by CH2M as commendable. But she said the company's action was unlikely to have much practical impact because construction companies passed responsibility for worker welfare down a long supply chain.

"What the main contractors do is pass the risk down the subcontracting chain, and it is the workers on the bottom of the chain who bear" it, Ms. Wells said.

In 2010, Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA who recently resigned after the indictment of nine officials of the organization on corruption charges, announced the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. It was the first time an Arab state had received the games. Now, Swiss investigators are looking into whether payments were made to get the tournament there.

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Labor practices in Qatar and other Gulf countries are based on the "kafala" system under which an employer sponsors a foreign worker. For years, advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have complained that the arrangement exploits workers and is rife with abuses.

Unskilled workers living in places such as Nepal and India may pay fees equaling a year's salary to labor recruiters in their home countries to get jobs in the Gulf. The workers then fall further into debt because, to pay those fees, they take out loans from recruiters at interest rates of 30 percent or more.

But the jobs they get may be different and pay less than ones they were promised. And workers are effectively chained to those positions because they need permission from their employer to change jobs.

After reports by human rights groups and a series of articles in The Guardian newspaper, Qatar hired DLA Piper in 2013 to examine the country's labor practices and make recommendations for change.

Qatari officials have said that companies building World Cup stadiums will be held to higher standards of worker treatment, and proposed changes to the kafala system are undergoing legislative review. In a statement, a government spokesman said the country had also put into place other safeguards, such as electronic payment of workers' salaries, and had built modernized accommodations for migrant laborers.

Mr. Pullen, the former DLA lawyer, said he believed Qatar had taken steps to improve conditions, but said the pace of change remained glacial and it was impossible to know, given the country's lack of transparency, how much of the kafala system it planned to change.

Labor activists and Qatari officials are also making competing claims about the scope and causes of migrant worker deaths in the country. Experts say both sides are making contentions that appear to have little foundation.

In a 2014 study, the International Trade Union Confederation, a labor group, estimated that 4,000 migrant workers could die before the start of the 2022 World Cup. To reach that figure, the group took the number of deaths of Indian and Nepalese workers reported to those embassies in Qatar over a three-year period and extrapolated the figure against a projected increase of 500,000 laborers in Qatar's foreign work force in coming years.

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Other researchers say the figure lacks factual support because it is unclear how the reported deaths occurred.

To rebut the trade union group's contentions, Qatari officials issued a statement last month claiming that the rate and causes of death among migrant laborers in their country was similar to ones found among similar populations in the workers' homeland, adding that 42 percent of worker deaths in Qatar were attributed to cardiovascular causes. In making the comparison, Qatari officials said they drew on data published by the Global Burden of Disease project, an international research effort that monitors death and disease trends around the world.

But Theo Vos, a professor at the University of Washington who works on the project, said that Qatar's claims were meaningless because researchers considered deaths from sudden cardiac arrest to be a "garbage code" that was not specific enough to describe the true cause of death. He also said that the rate of reported workplace deaths in Qatar appeared somewhat elevated compared with the rates in countries like India.

In its report, DLA Piper urged Qatari officials to begin a scientific study to determine the cause of fatalities among foreign workers because they were not autopsied at the time of death. Mr. Pullen said he did not believe Qatar had as yet acted on that recommendation.

At Wednesday's hearing, Mr. Bery of Amnesty International said that Qatar's failure to investigate the deaths "shows a lack of interest in finding out the answers."