What's the issue?
Concerns over labour rights abuses in the Gulf have hit the international spotlight in recent years, linked to Qatar's unprecedented construction boom for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island.
The workforce for these massive construction projects largely consists of migrant workers from countries in South and Southeast Asia and increasingly, Africa. These workers are vulnerable to exploitation under the visa sponsorship system, which governs the recruitment, employment, and residency of migrant workers in host countries.
Examples of the abuses faced by migrant workers include late and non-payment of wages, high recruitment fees, passport retention, restrictions on freedom of movement and association, and harsh working and living conditions.
The construction industry has managed to avoid being at the centre of reporting on this issue, but reports in the last few years have tied allegations of labour violations and mistreatment to multinational firms working on Qatar's Khalifa Stadium and other large-scale projects in the region.
What we did
In 2016 we asked 100 construction companies with operations in Qatar and the UAE to complete a survey on the action they were taking to protect migrant workers on their projects. Only a handful of companies responded with information on the actions they were taking to protect workers' rights, signifying an endemic lack of commitment.
What has changed
In the last two years several changes have taken place in the region that should have spurred construction companies to act on workers' rights.
Qatar has committed to reforming its labour laws to enhance the protection of migrant workers, in cooperation with the International Labour Organization. The UAE, meanwhile, has introduced initiatives such as the annual Taqdeer Award for strong labour performance in the construction industry. Clients, including Qatar Foundation, the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, Expo 2020 and the Tourism Development & Investment Company have introduced heightened and contractually-binding standards of worker welfare for contractors hired on their projects. At a global level, six engineering and construction companies have established the business coalition Building Responsibly to raise the standards of worker welfare in the industry, recently launching 10 key principles for companies to commit to and abide by.
In view of these developments, we are asking 50 companies with operations in Qatar and the UAE questions on how they are tackling the risks to migrant workers' rights in their operations and supply chains and will assess improvements in the sector since our 2016 survey.