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Amnesty International: Qatar rife with migrant worker abuse before World Cup

By Leone Lakhani and Holly Yan, CNN
updated 5:25 PM EST, Mon November 18, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • FIFA defends its decision in choosing Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup
  • About 94% of workers in Qatar are migrants, a U.N. agency says
  • Amnesty: Some migrants endure excessive hours, squalid conditions and withheld pay
  • After a scathing report, Qatar announced a series of labor reforms

(CNN) -- As Qatar goes on a construction blitz ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, much of the new infrastructure will be built by migrant workers. And given Qatar's track record, that's cause for major concern, a human rights group says.

A new report from Amnesty International finds that worker abuse is rife in Qatar's construction sector. The report, called "The Dark Side of Migration," says some workers endure excessive and often dangerous working hours, squalid living conditions and have their payments withheld. One manager referred to workers as "cattle."

The report is based on interviews with 210 workers, 22 companies and government officials. It includes investigations into companies subcontracted by major organizations, including the government's Qatar Foundation and South Korean group Hyundai Engineering & Construction.

Amnesty said its researchers witnessed 11 men signing papers before government officials, falsely claiming they had received all payments and benefits to allow them to leave the country.

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"It is simply inexcusable in one of the richest countries in the world that so many migrant workers are being ruthlessly exploited, deprived of their pay and left struggling to survive," Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty said.

The report also questions the safety standards on construction sites, citing a report from Doha's main hospital that says more than 1,000 people were admitted to the trauma unit last year after falling from heights. Ten percent were disabled as a result, according to that report.

Qatar's Ministry of Labor has not responded to CNN's request for comment.

Most workers are migrants

Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world, according to U.N. Special Rapporteur Francois Crepeau. About 94% of workers in Qatar are migrants, the United Nations' International Labour Organization said.

The Amnesty report follows a visit to Doha by Crepeau in November to review worker standards. His preliminary findings called for abolishing the kefala system, which ties workers to a single employer. Under kefala, workers cannot change jobs without permission from employers.

Crepeau also called for a minimum wage for all workers.

Qatar responds to accusations

In response to Amnesty's allegations, the director of the Human Rights Department at Qatar's Foreign Ministry said laws are in place to protect workers from mistreatment. "In the event that the Ministry of Labor becomes aware that the employer has not adhered to the contract ... then it will take all legal means and measures against the employer," the agency wrote to Amnesty.

But Amnesty and other human rights groups have cited lack of enforcement as a key problem.

This isn't the first time Qatar's working conditions for migrants have come under fire. After a report in the UK's Guardian newspaper that likened such conditions to "modern-day slavery," Qatar's Ministry of Labor issued a number of reforms in October. Those changes included doubling the number of labor site inspectors, increasing the number or labor branch offices and increasing the number of translators to ease communication with workers.

Amnesty said it recommends improving living standards, revising Qatar's labor laws, reforming the sponsorship system and removing the "exit permit," permission from a sponsor to leave the country.

Qatar's Ministry of Labor will set up a website for those seeking jobs in Qatar to "ensure that there will no longer be any discrepancy between the job the worker has signed up for in his country from that signed in Qatar," the Foreign Ministry said.

And the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, which oversees Qatar's World Cup plans, said Monday that it will release new "Workers' Welfare Standards" regarding recruitment, pay, housing and repatriation policies for foreign workers by the end of this year.

The standards, it said, will be "aligned with Qatari law and international best practice."

It said that it held a "productive discussion" with Amnesty International over the weekend about worker treatment, and agreed to continue talks in the run-up to the event.

The committee also said all contracts related to its projects will be enshrined in the Qatar 2022 Workers' Charter to protect workers' rights.

FIFA defended its decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

"FIFA firmly believes in the positive power that the FIFA World Cup can have in Qatar and in the Middle East as a great opportunity for the region to discover football as a platform for positive social change, including an improvement of labour rights and conditions for migrant workers," the international football association said in a statement to CNN.

"The state of Qatar is aware of various issues and has already started to react. FIFA has been informed by the Qatari authorities that the labour laws and labour system will be amended, a process which has already started."

READ: World Cup 2022: No FIFA decision on Qatar dates until 2014

READ: Qatar defends 2022 World Cup project amid migrant worker abuse claims

READ: 'Stranded' footballer Zahir Belounis told he can leave Qatar

CNN's Aleks Klosok and Schams Elwazer contributed to this report.

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