Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

22 Nov, 2011

Trades Union Decry “Inhuman Working Conditions” Behind Gulf Miracle

The awarding of the 2022 World Cup football extravaganza to Qatar has allowed the global trades union movement to jack up pressure on the Gulf states to safeguard the rights of the hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers who endure “inhuman working conditions” in building the gleaming new hotels, convention centres and airports.

A report, entitled “Hidden Faces of the Gulf Miracle”, was released by the international Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) last week. Download it free here. Documenting stories of the “migrant worker misery which lies behind the gleaming towers of Gulf cities,” it calls on both the governments of the Gulf states as well as the companies now queuing up for the lucrative World Cup-related contracts to fulfill their responsibilities.

“Conditions for migrant workers in the Middle East are unacceptable,” Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC is quoted as saying. “The World Cup is a time when the eyes of the world will be on Qatar and the other nations in this region. We will do everything to see that FIFA lives up to its responsibilities, that multinationals providing goods for the World Cup and their supply chains are actually respectful of workers rights.”

Says the report, “Dubai oozes glamour and bristles with superlatives: the world’s tallest building, most luxurious hotels and biggest shopping malls and vast artificial islands. In Doha, an ongoing building boom is poised to move up several gears as work kicks off on a massive infrastructure programme in preparation for the 2022 World Cup.

“What the tourists, sports fans and business travellers jetting in to the Gulf states may not see are the millions of migrant workers whose toil continues to build the new towers, shopping centres, hotels, stadiums and museums sprouting across these Arabian boomtowns.

“The army of men from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Somalia and a slew of other developing countries has been lured to the oil-rich nations of the Gulf on a promise of fat wages. Far from the air-conditioned malls and beachfront condos, they inhabit overcrowded barrack-like housing, in sprawling, dust-clogged, male-only suburbs like Dubai’s notorious Sonapur or the Industrial Area on the outskirts of Doha.

“Bussed home exhausted after long hours working in often blistering heat, the men are squeezed into up to ten to a room in company accommodation. Food is basic, sanitation often rudimentary and air-conditioning when it exists is sometimes ineffectual when summer temperatures soar over 40 ̊C. Many work at dangerous jobs with little or no health insurance.”

Based on interviews with many of the migrant workers, the report says they are willing to put up with the heat and harsh conditions for the chance to support their families with wages way beyond what they can earn at home.

However, it adds, “All too often, salaries are paid months overdue. Conned by unscrupulous recruitment agents, workers arrive in the Gulf to discover they are paid considerably less than they were promised back in their homelands, leaving the traumatised migrants struggling to pay off the debts they ran up to fund their passage to the Gulf let alone provide for their struggling families.”

It adds, “The migrants have few chances of escaping from abusive employers. A system known as Kafala binds foreign workers to the local companies that sponsored their travel to the Gulf nations. The workers need their employers’ authorization to switch jobs, and companies frequently hold migrants’ passports to ensure they don’t leave the country before the end of their contacts.”

It notes that trade unions are effectively banned under the laws of the UAE and Qatar, so migrant workers have little chance to organise protest against their conditions.

Remedial Steps

The report says remedial steps are being taken, but much more could to be done.

“Faced with international criticism, the governments in both Qatar and the UAE have taken steps to improve conditions for migrant labour. Both have introduced legislation to grant workers more flexibility to change jobs, although they reject talk of scrapping the Kafala sponsorship system altogether.

“Tighter rules have been brought in to control unscrupulous recruitment agencies, safety standards have been improved and workers have been granted extended statutory breaks from the blazing afternoon sun through three months of summer.

“The UAE’s Wages Protection System phased in since 2009 obliges companies to pay workers through electronic bank payments which can be monitored by the authorities. The move has been widely praised, but it has not stopped late payment of wages being the biggest complaint in the migrant hostels. The building of better housing for some has not prevented hundreds of thousands living in squalid conditions.”

The Qatari authorities say there will be improvements to migrant housing. A new Labourers’ City has been announced to house 53,000 workers at a cost of three billion Qatari Riyals ($800 million). The project is designed to have cinemas, sports fields, mosques and landscaped gardens.

“The Emir’s influential wife Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser is said to be taking a personal interest in proposals to build new-style housing complexes with a social department in each compound and on-site counsellors to provide psychological support and skills training, so they are better equipped for the job market when they return to their homeland,” the report says.