Commentary

Human rights issue raised in Qatar

U.S. contractor that will build for World Cup responds to reports of worker abuse

Updated: October 1, 2013, 6:35 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Qatar laborersReuters/Fadi Al-Assaad Workers in Qatar are reportedly not receiving water or pay and passports are being confiscated.
The World Cup is not worth a single human life.

This week's column isn't too complicated. The World Cup, the biggest sporting event on the planet, is not worth the cost of a single human life. Simple. Last week's series in The Guardian about working conditions in Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup, warns not of one death, but of hundreds. 

According to The Guardian report: "Dozens of Nepalese migrant labourers have died in Qatar in recent weeks and thousands more are enduring appalling labour abuses, a Guardian investigation has found, raising serious questions about Qatar's preparations to host the 2022 World Cup. This summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of labourers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, during a building binge paving the way for 2022."

Read more about it here. And here. And here. And here. The Guardian also reported:

"Qatar's construction frenzy ahead of the 2022 World Cup is on course to cost the lives of at least 4,000 migrant workers before a ball is kicked, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has claimed. The group has been scrutinising builders' deaths in the Gulf emirate for the past two years and said that at least half a million extra workers from countries including Nepal, India and Sri Lanka are expected to flood in to complete stadiums, hotels and infrastructure in time for the World Cup kickoff. The annual death toll among those working on building sites could rise to 600 a year -- almost a dozen a week -- unless the Doha government makes urgent reforms, it says."

There are more than 1.2 million migrant workers in Qatar, a nation of only 225,000 citizens. Per capita it is one of the richest countries on Earth, but its reliance on kafala -- a form of sponsored employment with historical roots in adoption law -- means that vulnerable foreign laborers are often exploited and abused. Passports confiscated, wages unpaid, unfed and stacked in bunkhouses like cordwood; at its worst it's a kind of indentured servitude. Links to the most recent Human Rights Watch reports out of Qatar are here, and here and here. And while Qatar's own labor laws ban bad practice, nothing much has changed. It's a slow-motion factory collapse.

I won't pretend to know Qatar any better than you do. It is a mystery even as you're standing in it. Like my friend Charlie Pierce, I've been there, and I've seen the money and the ambition and the construction sites blazing night and day, the cranes nodding and turning, the buildings rising out of nothing, the immaculate highways empty and razor-straight into the dunes, the guards and snipers at the seaside embassies and the workers covered in dust everywhere on the buses, staring, the heat rising and the unspoken panic to get it all done, to make a modern country out of a 12th century desert, before the oil wells run dry.

[+] EnlargeDoha city
Reuters/Fadi Al-AssaadThe U.S. company that will begin World Cup construction in Qatar hopes to lead by example, a company spokesperson says.

Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the Emirates -- the Persian Gulf wants to compete for the great international games. But our great international games are no longer just an occasion for corruption; they are corruption itself. The World Cup, the Olympics, Formula One -- international sports are a brand of racketeering, a trillion-dollar shakedown, a global con. The graft is written right into the charter: Pay up or pound sand. For every city or state or country bidding up these events there's a premium to pay on top of the price of the event itself. To say nothing of the costs everyone tries so hard to hide. Can you imagine the mountain of money it took to bring the World Cup to Qatar? That it remains an ally and a pivotal U.S. military asset in the region makes everything more complicated.

The contract to manage the immense building program for that 2022 World Cup went to an American company, CH2M Hill. Based in Colorado, it recently absorbed another global construction operation, Halcrow. The firm now faces not only the concrete challenge of construction but also a struggle against ingrained Qatari labor practice. And the prospect of a decade-long public relations nightmare.

It is important to note here that the CH2M Hill construction phase of World Cup infrastructure has not yet begun.

But the moral, ethical and practical implications of a contract like this -- do you take the lucrative job and fight for change? Or do you refuse the job as an act of conscience, and by doing so inadvertently protect the status quo? -- are nearly incalculable.

Boycott? Or work for justice from the inside? Or just close your eyes and cash the check?

This past weekend I exchanged emails with John Corsi, CH2M Hill's vice president, media and public relations.

Having worked extensively in the Gulf, and in Qatar, was CH2M Hill / Halcrow aware of longstanding human rights issues surrounding the kafala sponsorship system and foreign workers before bidding on the 2022 World Cup contracts?

"As a global company with a long-history of successful projects completed with integrity and with ethical business practices, we take issues of workers welfare, whether our employees or not, and on any project, very seriously.

"Our work in the region in the past decade has been primarily in program management or as technical consultants. Throughout our roles, we ensure that appropriate terms and conditions are properly placed in the procurement documents of our clients. In cases where we have a supervisory role over a contractor, we apply our health and safety guidelines.

"With regards to our role on Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup Program, from the start, we have been working to support our client's commitment to have the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup program drive positive change and continuous development in a number of areas in Qatar including the welfare of workers in construction.

"Our Qatar 2022 client has issued a Workers' Welfare Charter that documents a set of worker welfare standards to be enforced for all contractors and subcontractors. ( Please see this link on recent developments. (Secretary General Hassan Al Thawadi's comments at the Clinton Global Initiative press conference on 9/26. http://new.livestream.com/CGI/CGI2013pressconferences)"

How was it prepared to deal with them?

"We believe we have a positive role to play everywhere we operate and conduct business in promoting worker welfare, health and safety, environmental protection, security and sustainability.

"Drawing on experience from other major projects in the region and international best practice,CH2M HILL is committed to supporting our clients with strategies on equality and inclusion, employment skills and health and well being, among other things.

"Our clients select and engage us for our expertise not only relating to project delivery and technology but also for our sensitivity and experience in areas relating to the application of international standards and best practices for promoting positive progress in these areas.

"At the same time we realize that CH2M HILL does not operate in a vacuum but rather within and among a network of various entities all of whom have a stake and responsibility to ensure appropriate behaviors and positive outcomes. CH2M HILL routinely works with clients and proactively reaches out to non-governmental agencies, advocacy groups and other interested parties to identify where alone and together we can make positive contributions to raising standards and apply best practices."

Despite Qatar's many assurance to the contrary -- especially since winning its World Cup Bid -- its enforcement of its own labor laws remains lax. As project manager for that World Cup, what can CH2M Hill/ Halcrow do to bring Qatar to compliance with its own labor laws regarding the treatment of foreign workers?

"We believe the best way to improve labor law compliance in Qatar is to lead by example. We are supporting our Qatar 2022 client in developing an approach to Worker Welfare and labor law compliance for the Qatar 2022 program that we believe will significantly improve the treatment of workers in the construction sector. This approach considers the following three areas:

Standards. a set of worker's standards consistent with the Worker's Charter, published earlier this year, that will cover ethical recruitment, employment standards, accommodations, employee disputes and health and safety.

Inspections. establishing an inspection and enforcement regimen which includes a Workers induction program, regular welfare audits at multiple levels within the organization and periodic workers inspections

Contractor selection. establishing a procurement approach that verifies contractor worker welfare past performance through the Ministry of Labor and other regulatory agencies as part of the tender prequalification phase. Contractor worker welfare performance is evaluated as part of the tender scoring and contractors failing to achieve the worker welfare standards will be removed from future tender consideration. We believe that this approach will improve standards, ensure greater inspection and promote compliance."

Following last year's report from Human Rights Watch detailing remedies for the abuse of those migrant workers, what concrete steps have CH2M Hill / Halcrow taken to improve conditions on their behalf? (I.e., pressuring or replacing subcontractors.)

"CH2M HILL has supported our Qatar2022 client in its outreach to Human Rights Watch and other human rights and health and safety organizations to seek solutions. We consider these to be valuable alliances in identifying best practices."

Does an American company doing global business bear an ethical or moral obligation superseding local law? Should an American company, even when employing foreign workers, be held to a higher standard?

"Our Target Zero Policy requires that we place the safety and health of our employees and the protection of the environment at the forefront of our business. This Target Zero Policy, and our recognized Ethics program, both aim to increase awareness among our employees to ensure that all participants on any program or project treat worker safety and ethical business practices as a top priority. We remain committed to protecting all workers on any program and to improve awareness of human rights violations, regardless of the location of the project.

"Our Qatar 2022 client has spoken publicly about Qatar's commitment for the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup program to be an agent for positive change on the status of worker welfare in the country, and we are committed to providing the support needed to our client in this regard.

"As an American company, we are proud to work with a client that is fully committed to bringing our expertise to bear on driving positive and sustainable changes to health and safety standards for workers in Qatar."

Our correspondence, including a statement in response to the Guardian articles, with personal details redacted is here. 

To the extent that our games are meant to symbolize the best and worst in us all, these certainly will, perhaps more perfectly than we intend. Our humanity will be measured in every dimension of glory and squalor. We need to hold international sanctioning bodies like FIFA responsible for what they do, and we need to hold broadcasters and sponsors and the media and the contractors and the governments and ourselves accountable for what we make of the world.

No game is worth a single human life. Simple.

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