Commit to Compensate Abused Migrant Workers: FIFA/Qatar

Human Rights Watch

FIFA and Qatari authorities should leverage the country’s existing migrant worker compensation systems to establish a comprehensive remedy program for workers who suffered serious harms, including deaths, injuries, and wage theft, Human Rights Watch said today.

When the Fédération International de Football Association (FIFA) awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup hosting rights in 2010, FIFA did not impose conditions that required Qatar to improve labor protections despite a track record of rights abuses. Consequently, human rights groups and journalists repeatedly documented serious abuses against migrant workers in Qatar while employed to deliver infrastructure essential to the tournament. In recent years, Qatari authorities have created several compensation systems to mitigate these longstanding problems, but the systems do not cover all workers or address abuses in the years before they began, mostly after 2018, and significant gaps remain.

“Qatar has compensated some migrant workers who have faced serious abuses in recent years, but for many, these programs were created too late and are still a major work in progress,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “With the tournament nearly a hundred days away, it is critical for FIFA and Qatari authorities to publicly commit to providing compensation for workers and their families who suffered serious harm while making the World Cup possible.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 migrant workers from various countries, and an additional 13 people from companies and government agencies who are knowledgeable about existing compensation programs and current gaps. Research indicated that a comprehensive, large-scale remedy program could benefit from existing records and compensation schemes in both Qatar and origin countries, even if these programs are insufficient by themselves to address the extent of the abuses.

Qatari authorities, including the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the body responsible for planning and delivering World Cup infrastructure, have introduced several initiatives, including the Labour Ministry’s Wage Protection System (WPS), Labour Dispute Resolution Committees and Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund (Workers’ Support Fund), and the Supreme Committee’s Universal Reimbursement Scheme. The Supreme Committee also urges its contractors to purchase life insurance for their employees.

Yet significant gaps remain. These programs’ benefits have been limited due to their late introduction, narrow scope, or faulty implementation. Despite several promising labor reform initiatives, Human Rights Watch has documented that widespread wage abuses have persisted, even in 2022, the year of the tournament. Qatari authorities have also failed to investigate the causes of deaths of thousands of migrant workers, a large number of which are attributed to “natural causes.” The scale of uncompensated human rights abuses in Qatar since 2010, therefore, is significant.

FIFA and Qatar should immediately commit to the remedy call and start long overdue discussions around a comprehensive and participatory remedy program in close consultation with origin country governments, trade unions, worker representatives, the International Labour Organization, and civil society.

The compensation that has been provided can have far-reaching benefits to migrant workers and their families. One beneficiary of the Workers’ Support Fund, who had been subjected to wage theft of over six months’ pay recalled, “When I got a call unexpectedly [from Qatar authorities] to come pick up my check [for unpaid wages] after months of following up, I could not believe it.” He immediately transferred the money to his family who had taken loans for his children’s education and parents’ health bills. He added, “Whether it was walking back and forth in the heat to [Qatar’s] labor court, because the taxi fare was unaffordable, or the helplessness I felt with loans stacking up back home, I had even contemplated suicide. It was the faces of my family members, especially my mother, that had kept me going during those trying times.” But he said he was only one of four migrant workers from his company who was compensated for the same wage theft; his three colleagues are still waiting.

Qatar is obligated under international human rights law to prevent widespread human rights violations and to ensure remedy for every abuse in its territory. FIFA, too, has clear commitments under its own statutes and responsibilities under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to remedy abuse to which it has contributed.

“It is imperative for FIFA and Qatar to finally compensate the migrant workers for the abuses they suffered,” Page said. “If not, World Cup 2022 will be remembered for its legacy of unaddressed labor and human rights abuses.”

Human Rights Watch found that access to programs that compensate workers for serious harm has been limited. The programs have only been established in recent years: the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund became operational in 2020; the Supreme Committee Universal Reimbursement Scheme came into effect in 2017; and the Supreme Committee started encouraging its contractors to adopt life insurance for migrant workers only since 2019. This means that scores of migrant workers who worked in Qatar and experienced abuses before these programs existed never had access to them.

In addition, migrant worker access to these programs has been limited, either due to narrow scope design or weak implementation. Supreme Committee projects employ fewer than two percent of the total migrant workforce in Qatar, with only some spillover to non-Supreme Committee workers employed by complying contractors. Even among Supreme Committee contractors, adoption of compensation schemes has been uneven.

For programs like the Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund, lack of information or fear among victims of employer retaliation, as well as delays and opacity in decision making on how and when workers qualify to receive compensation has deterred access. The high exclusion rates of these existing programs have meant that many migrant workers who are victims of abuse often return home uncompensated, based on interviews and previous research conducted by Human Rights Watch. Once they are back home, migrant workers’ access to compensation systems in Qatar is even more limited.

The last resort for many returning migrant workers and their families are welfare programs set up by their own governments especially for abuses resulting in death and injury. The Migrant Welfare Funds are commonly used in many countries of origin to fund such welfare schemes. However, such support is often conditioned on valid labor permits, which not all migrant workers possess. Moreover, origin countries’ level and comprehensiveness of support to migrant workers varies significantly. The available records collected in embassies, consulates, and migrant welfare departments of countries of origin and the implementation lessons from these welfare schemes, however, can inform the design and implementation of a comprehensive compensation program by FIFA and Qatar.

Methodology

Human Rights Watch spoke with 16 migrant workers of various nationalities about their experience with existing compensation programs, including 10 who benefited from existing Qatari government or Supreme Committee initiatives, and 6 who said they still have not been compensated.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed three Supreme Committee contractors, four former and current officials of embassies of countries of origin, three civil society organization leaders working on migrant issues in countries of origin, and three journalists who cover migrant worker issues in countries of origin.

Human Rights Watch also met with the Supreme Committee and the Labour Ministry, which provided contacts for migrant workers who received compensation and with representatives of companies that have adopted the Supreme Committee’s Universal Reimbursement Scheme. The Labour Ministry also provided some written responses to questions on the ministry’s compensation program.

Names of interviewees have been withheld due to security concerns.

Existing Programs

Life Insurance

Under Qatari Labour Law, families of workers who die because of work, or workers who sustain work injuries resulting in partial or complete permanent disability from work injuries, are entitled to compensation from their employers. However, deaths and disabilities not considered work-related are not compensated. As Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented, thousands of deaths have been attributed to unexplained or natural causes. Recognizing the inadequacy of the current compensation system, since 2019, the Supreme Committee urged its contractors to purchase life insurance for workers to ensure that all families of deceased workers receive compensation regardless of the location or cause of death.

Twenty-three contractors complied, covering 66,255 workers. The insurance can cost less than 50 QAR (US$14) per worker per year for a benefit of 75,000 QAR (US$20,599), according to documents obtained by Human Rights Watch. But employer adoption of life insurance schemes has been low and thousands of families have not had this protection for deaths classified as nonwork related.

Human Rights Watch spoke to the brother-in-law of a migrant worker, who died in 2020 following what Qatari authorities categorized as a heart attack, which is considered “nonwork related death,” even though Qatar’s extreme heat is often linked to serious health risks. He said that his sister received 75,000 QAR (US$20,599) through the group insurance program.

“[My brother-in-law] was away for five years and never got to see his daughter grow up, who was born just before he left for Qatar,” he said. “He was in good health but suddenly died of heart attack.” The family used the insurance to buy land and is building a house. The compensation money is not enough to cover their daily expenses and the daughter’s education but has at least provided property that will provide long-term financial security.

But Human Rights Watch found that families seldom receive compensation for deaths not considered work-related.[i] The son of a Bangladeshi migrant worker who died in Qatar after having lived there for over 20 years said that his family received 35,000 Takas (US$371) for burial support and later 300,000 Takas (US$3,181) from the Bangladeshi government.

“With [Bangladeshi government] support … we bought land,” he said. “We did not receive anything from the Qatari government. It’s sad that I lost my dad, but he spent his whole life in Qatar and gave so much effort in constructing a lot of buildings there. Compared to the efforts, I would say my father has been cheated by Qatar.”

Labour Ministry’s Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund (Workers’ Support Fund)

In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch documented that employers and labor supply companies in Qatar frequently delay, withhold, or arbitrarily deduct workers’ wages. Companies often withhold contractually guaranteed overtime payments and end-of-service benefits, and they regularly violate their contracts with migrant workers with impunity. In the worst cases, workers said that employers simply stopped paying their wages, and they often struggled to buy food.

To address this widespread abuse of wage theft, Qatar amended its labor law and created the Wage Protection System (WPS) in 2015, an electronic salary transfer system that obliges employers to pay wages within prescribed deadlines but which Human Rights Watch found acted more like a notification system. The authorities also established Labour Dispute Resolution Committees, designed to give workers a more efficient way to pursue grievances against their employers, and a Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund (Workers’ Support Fund), to ensure that if companies fail to comply with the Labour Dispute Resolution Committees’ ruling in a worker’s favor, workers would still be paid.

The Workers’ Support Fund became operational only in 2020 and based on data the Ministry of Labour provided in July 2022, the fund has compensated 36,373 workers of 17 nationalities, both inside and outside Qatar, a total of 597,591,986 QAR (US$164 million).

It is difficult to know to what extent this program has dealt with the scope of wage theft. The ministry did not provide information on the total number of outstanding cases, and there is no estimate of the number of wage abuse victims who have not submitted formal complaints for fear of retaliation or lack of information, among other reasons. However, data since 2015 is likely to be available from the WPS, since it monitors workers’ salaries and raises red flags when payments are inaccurate or delayed.

For migrant workers who do benefit from the Workers’ Support Fund, the recovery of wages can be transformational. One beneficiary had falsely been reported by his employer as absconding when he wanted to return home because of his father’s death. When he found out he would receive his stolen wages through the Workers’ Support Fund, “I thanked God and called my mother,” he said. “I told her that I am sending her all the money to spend it on what she needs. It was a tough period for her after my father passed away.”

Workers also incur costs to retrieve unpaid wages. Neither the Labour Dispute Resolution Committee nor the Workers’ Support Fund require workers to be compensated for transportation and documentation costs during the process. One migrant worker said he could not afford his children’s school fees after he did not receive three months of wages or severance pay. He went to court and won his case, but the courts were unable to force anyone to pay the wages as everyone who was considered responsible had fled the country. He ultimately received part of his stolen wages from the Workers’ Support Fund six months after submitting a claim, and told Human Rights Watch he was thankful for the government’s assistance in recovering his wages. However, he also noted half of the recovered funds had gone to cover his taxi expenses traveling between Qatari courts and government agencies over three years. He had also depleted his time off at a new job to go in person to fight for his stolen wages. He said that to navigate the wage dispute bureaucracy, “it is easy if you are aware and educated, but not everyone is agile [enough] to learn how to navigate these systems.”

Human Rights Watch also followed up with workers who faced repeated wage theft while employed by Bin Omran Trading and Contracting (BOTC) and repeatedly wrote to FIFA about wage theft from this FIFA contractor. Workers said the compensation process has been uneven and partial for many of them.

“Most of us thankfully received our overdue basic wages, which is what we are relying on to pay for loans and to cover our expenses, as we apply for new jobs,” one worker said. “But we did not receive the notice period salary or our end of service benefits that we are legally entitled to, which would be a substantial amount for those of us who had worked in the company for many years. We don’t know if and when we will be paid.”

Another worker said he was owed several months of wages by another company dating from before 2020. Despite a court verdict entitling him to over 60,000 QAR (US$16,479), the court was unable to compel the company to pay because the company registration has been altered. He submitted a claim to the Workers’ Support Fund more than six months ago and is yet to receive his compensation. The four-year ordeal had taken a toll on his health: “I had heart failure. I urgently need the money to undergo a surgery.” He has been following up frequently with the Workers’ Support Fund and has been told that priority is now given to those who are owed less than 20,000 QAR (US$5,493).

Interviews by Human Rights Watch and previous research has found that many workers wait for these compensation systems in vain and eventually return home, especially after running out of savings. A worker who had left Qatar with seven months’ unpaid wages said: “When surviving in Qatar became unaffordable despite charity support for food, we decided to return. I was gutted on the flight back. Homecoming is usually a happy occasion when we bring back gifts for families. I was instead returning empty handed without any savings on a ticket purchased by my family with borrowed money.”

After over a year and a half of waiting he finally got the overdue check via the Qatari embassy. “It was like a dream,” he said. “With the compensation, I managed to get out of the debt trap my family had been stuck in for years.”

Another worker from the same contractor who also received his compensation through the Qatar Embassy in his home country said: “I had paid US$1,200 for a job that did not pay me for months of physically demanding work. It was a weight I carried even after returning home. I had doubts of being reimbursed until the very end when I held the check in my hand. With that money, I was able to clear my children’s school dues that had been pending for months and to complete the construction of my house.”

Many workers simply give up. In a case Human Rights Watch documented for a 2020 report, a 35-year-old security guard from Kenya who had paid US$1,123 in recruitment fees financed by loans, said he was going further in debt because his company delayed payments and never paid for overtime work. “Sometimes I think there is no way out. I will be trapped here working forever.”

Human Rights Watch followed up with him in 2022. In 2020, he went home to Kenya with a partial reimbursement from his employer, but he is no longer hopeful about recovering the rest of what he is owed. In 2021, he had returned to Qatar for another job but had paid US$1,320 in recruitment fees to his recruiter, higher than what he had paid the first time he had migrated to Qatar. He said, “It doesn’t matter if we are remigrating; if we don’t pay, we stay back. So, we have no choice.”

Supreme Committee’s Universal Reimbursement Scheme

Even with the global spotlight and unprecedented scrutiny that hosting the FIFA World Cup has brought to Qatar, recruitment costs are pervasive for migrant workers despite it being illegal in Qatar to charge workers for their recruitment.[ii] A 2021 audit of Supreme Committee projects found that 68 percent of the workers paid recruitment fees, an average of US$1,333. The same report shows that such fees are even higher for some nationalities or employment sector.

In 2017, the Supreme Committee introduced the Universal Reimbursement Scheme in which contractors are required to prove they have hired their workers ethically, thus shifting the burden of proof away from workers and onto contractors. In 2019, the program was reinforced by requiring contractors to provide Labour Ministry-attested commitment letters, which the Supreme Committee states that it allows for “an immediate intervention is raised to ensure rectification, or alternatively the Supreme Committee can engage the Labour Ministry to take further action” in case of breach of commitment.

According to the Supreme Committee’s April 2022 audit report, 266 contracting companies have committed to reimburse 30,748 Supreme Committee workers and 18,066 non-Supreme Committee workers for recruitment costs, for a total of QAR 103.95 million (US$28.4 million) over a 36-month period. As of December 2021, QAR 83.20 million ($21.96 million) has been paid. 219 contractors signed commitment letters attested by the Ministry of Labour to compensate workers even beyond a worker’s demobilization from Supreme Committee projects and that would allow authorities to take action in case of failure.

Human Rights Watch spoke to three migrant workers who had been compensated for recruitment costs under the program. “At first, I was scared to admit to my management that I had paid fees,” one worker said. “But later, when they followed up again and I was assured that it would not cost me my job, I shared the truth. They reimbursed my father back home without demanding any proof of payment. I was not expecting it at all.”

Human Rights Watch also spoke to representatives of three Supreme Committee contractors who said the reimbursement program has boosted the morale of workers, as it removed the burden of loans on workers who had taken them out to pay for illegal recruitment fees.

This initiative, while promising, covers fewer than 50,000 workers, an insignificant share of Qatar’s migrant workforce of over 2 million. However, there are important lessons to apply from this program for other remedy programs, including the need to shift the burden of proof from the migrant worker to the employer.

Remedial Programs in Migrants’ Countries of Origin

Governments of origin countries also provide some minimal welfare support to returning migrant workers or their families to mitigate or compensate the serious abuses migrant workers face in host countries like Qatar, especially in cases of migrant worker deaths and injuries. Until recently, these were at times the only option for redress. However, the level of benefits and the extent to which they are comprehensive varies across countries of origin and applies only to workers with valid labor approvals. The existence of these programs, though, means that large amounts of records are available that the Qatari authorities can leverage to provide redress for deaths of workers and other injuries or abuses of migrant workers since Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

Contributory Migrant Welfare Funds (MWFs), which are largely financed by contributions from migrants, are commonly used to fund such welfare programs. In many instances, the establishment of the funds predate 2010, when Qatar was awarded the World Cup hosting rights: Philippines (1977), Sri Lanka (1985), Pakistan (1979), Bangladesh (1990), or Nepal (2008). These programs or private insurance programs are designed to provide some basic remedy to overseas workers or their dependents in case of deaths, injuries, or sickness, among others.

Compensation to families of deceased migrant workers in Bangladesh is US$3,180, in Philippines from $2,000 to $4,000, and in Nepal $6,156 from the MWF and $8,795 from private insurance. Compensation for injuries or individual health programs funded by the program in Nepal is up to $6,156, in Philippines $1,776, and in Bangladesh $1,066.

These programs rest on strong recordkeeping. For example, documentation requirements for the repatriation of a migrant worker’s body vary by country and can pose significant administrative challenges for families to bring them home. They broadly include power of attorney or consent from the legal heir, a death certificate, a police report, a medical report, an airway bill, an embalming certificate, and a No Objection Certificate from the embassy of the relevant country of origin. This means, though, that migrant death records are largely available in both Qatar and in the databases of governments of countries of origin that could be useful in the design and delivery of an effective compensation scheme.

Some origin countries also provide scholarships for children of deceased migrant workers, including Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines to ensure that the loss of the family breadwinner does not compel families to pull children out of schools. However, in practice, it is often difficult to get these benefits. Concerns regarding the continuation of children’s education comes up as one of the primary areas of concern for families of the deceased. The brother-in-law of one Nepali worker whose body was being repatriated in July 2022 said: “What will happen to my sister? She has three small children to take care of.”

In addition to providing compensation to victims unilaterally under various programs, governments of countries of origin – especially the embassies and consular offices – can also play a critical role to enable compensation for both current workers and those already back in their home countries. Online consular grievance management systems, including Madad (India) and Department of Consular Services (Nepal), allow workers to file and track grievances including compensation for nonpayment of salary, death or injury among others.[iii] Embassies and consulates, after obtaining Power of Attorney from victims or their families, can pursue claims on behalf of migrant workers including those who are already back in their home countries.

These systems also have various problems, including lack of awareness among migrant workers or slow responses because of understaffing or consular staff reticence to proactively follow-up with concerned Qatari authorities or companies. Finally, there are also Qatari Embassies and Qatar Visa Centers in origin countries that could play an important facilitation role in the implementation of the comprehensive remedy program, as was seen in the case of two workers interviewed for this research who received their due wages from the Workers’ Support Fund through the Qatari Embassy.

[i] According to research by Amnesty International, for 34 of the 35 migrant worker deaths on Supreme Committee-related projects between 2014 and April 2021 that the Supreme Committee attributed to non-work related causes, employers/SC paid an average of 41,360 QAR (US$11,360) to the families. According to the Supreme Committee, these payments included outstanding salaries and benefits, group life insurance, voluntary company contributions or Sharia law payments, where applicable. Families of three Supreme Committee workers whose deaths were classified as work-related, received an average of 158,628 QAR (US$43,567).

[ii] A 2021 audit of Supreme Committee (SC) projects, which are held to higher standards and scrutiny because of their direct association with the FIFA World Cup, found that 68 percent of the workers paid recruitment fees with the average of $1,333. Eight out of 18 migrant workers in top luxury hotel brands in Qatar reported being charged high fees to secure jobs ranging from $500 to $2,360 which is almost nine months’ salary at the new legal minimum. Thirty-nine out of 40 former or current employees of the security firm G4S Qatar reported paying an average of 1,525 USD to recruiters, ranging between $824 and $2,560. A nationally representative survey from 2020 showed that average recruitment fees for Bangladeshis to Qatar were estimated to be 402,478 TK which is $4,664.

[iii] For example, Human Rights Watch obtained a record of the 12247 labor complaints received by the Indian Embassy in Doha from 2016 till October 2020. Of the 2157 complaints received in 2020, for example, common grievance categories were compensation (15), mortal remains (323), salaries or dues (235) and repatriation support (1204). In 2020, Sri Lankan authorities received 506 complaints from Qatar-based Sri Lankans.

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